Turning to Burton and Apollinaire

May 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

All week I’ve been listening to a new Radio 4 series, ‘The New Anatomy of Melancholy’, which takes Robert Burton’s insights in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) as the comparative basis for an exploration of mental illness in present-day Britain, in particular the experience of depression. It’s very timely, though probably prepared before the Covid lockdown, and comforting, because, in its emphasis on the social, past and present, it gives context to the lonely, downcast individual, and it always ends with music. Today’s episode, the 5th of 12, looked at poverty and housing, and how mental health in general is affected by cramped living.

I’ve never lived in a house, only flats, first in Glasgow and Lanarkshire, later in Madrid, London, Paris, Venice and London again. It’s not something I’ve ever felt as a deprivation, until now. Low-rise tenement architecture in the west of Scotland was often built so that each flat had its own door to the street, with the privacy of coming and going. For most of my childhood that was the case, in two different locations. In one of these there was a communal backcourt, where washing was hung out and children played.

Right now I’d be very grateful to have my ‘own door’; I’d go out more. Instead I share a staircase and narrow hallway with a dozen other people, with the risk of bumping into one or more of them as I come or go. Fortunately, my neighbours, all of them younger, are helpful and aware of my situation, but I still feel trapped. I do have a small balcony overlooking greenery and I know I’m much better off than many others living in flats.

Black moods have become part of the domestic landscape for many of us, particularly those living alone. Limitations on movement for a couple or a family are one thing, perhaps akin to life in an open prison, whereas solitary confinement has always been designed to drive people mad. And, alas, I find I don’t quite have the staying power of Benvenuto Cellini or the Count of Monte Cristo, though they are great examples to us all. The Count has often cheered me up, especially once he engineers his escape. Dumas was writing a sharp and funny social satire.

Robert Burton said a lot about what can alleviate black moods: shared mirth and merriment, reading…. ‘I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy’ – good advice. We are all finding different ways to avoid it and inevitably sometimes failing. I try to get some mirth and merriment from FaceTime.

I’ve thought often in these weeks of Apollinaire’s necessities for happiness in his short poem ‘Le Chat’, which I’ve always loved.

Je souhaite dans ma maison:

Une femme ayant sa raison,

Un chat passant parmi les livres,

Des amis en toute saison

Sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre

I’ve sometimes tried to translate ‘Le Chat’, but never succeeded to my own satisfaction. Please respond with your own translation if you’d like to. For the duration at least, there are no longer any friends in my house, and just the fond memory of a cat who would step between the books. So far I am managing, just about, to hang onto ‘ma raison’, however you translate it.

Apollinaire died in the 1918 flu epidemic, while recovering from a head injury in the First World War.

I recommend ‘The New Anatomy of Melancholy’. It’s on at 1.45, after the less cheering World at One.

Emblems and Anthems

February 1, 2020 § 2 Comments

Last night, as people repeatedly shouted ‘Freedom!’ on the radio, and on Channel 4 News I watched the jubilation at a working-class pub in South Shields, the angry, irrational part of me came to the fore and shouted back: Fools! Damn your stupid eyes!
Of course, these triumphalists are not the ones to blame for yesterday’s sad outcome. I just needed to shout at them.
In the years since the referendum, the sensible, rational part of me has urged an attempt to understand the emotions behind what seems wilful misrecognition of what freedom might mean on the part of those who are economically marginal and who feel themselves disregarded by decision-making at Westminster.
Brexit’s right-wing advocates played on this sense of injustice and outdid any logic of the economic and social value in remaining part of the European Union by using the symbolism and frequently sinister rhetoric of nation, shading into that of race. I know understanding that dynamic is important, but today I’m thinking first about those outward things that influence feelings and loyalties, and not just for those who today are triumphant, but for those of us who voted to stay in the EU.
I increasingly find myself despairing at the existential unease of living in the country referred to as the United Kingdom. What do we mean by ‘this country’, ‘this nation’? Britain? England? Scotland? Wales? Ireland (the bit of it broken off in 1922)? It depends on who is speaking and of what, among the many discrepancies involved. For myself, I’m a Scot and an adoptive Londoner. I’m also a native European, by conjunction of birth and geography, an identity reinforced by my having lived in countries on continental Europe, but one also available to all of Britain’s inhabitants. My country lies somewhere among these.
England used to subsume the other nations on the island of Britain, this being not merely the carelessness of insensitive individuals, but part of public discourse. It had long been so (Shakespeare’s ‘this sceptred isle’) and it continued throughout my childhood and youth…. Hearing ourselves disappeared into the dominant national identity was maddening and sometimes painful. In the 80s Scotland acquired a stronger presence, a cultural boost through the dawning prominence of writers, artists and musicians. A boost for our sense of ourselves as Scots, and a little shift in English awareness. The SNP was making waves and in 1997 came devolution to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Wales too got its own devolved government.
Since then there seems to have been a crisis of English identity, in great part deriving from vociferous right-wing sentiment inside and beyond the Tory party. At some point the flag of St George became adopted by extreme right-wing groups, replacing their fondness for the Union Jack, England needing to be plucked out of that flag of four nations and made distinct. The flag of St George has remained a right-wing emblem, while also becoming a little more respectable.
The sense of shortfall in Englishness has fuelled much of the Brexit cause. While loss of empire was the often unspoken feature of the compensatory arguments for national greatness and going it alone, there was a more open fear of England shrinking as the other nations of Britain fill their own space and even threaten independence, and a case has been made that England is politically under-represented in some of its regions. Not straightforward things to address.
At primary school in the west of Scotland I was taught about flags. We learned that the Union Jack was a composite and that we had our own flags: the blue-and-white Cross of St Andrew, now commonly known as the Saltire, and the Lion Rampant, which I preferred as a child: it was the more colourful and had an animal on it. Both predate the Union. The Saltire is now firmly established as the Scottish flag. As for the Union Jack, to me back then it was the emblem of both the sectarian and political divides, because deployed by the Unionist Party (what the Scottish Tories called themselves). The majority of working-class Catholics in the west of Scotland voted Labour while most Unionist voters were Protestants.
I have a memory of our class being hurried out one day to the bridge near the school, under which the Royal train was due to pass, and lined up against the railing with little Union Jacks placed in selected hands, to be waved at the right moment. The train hurtled along the track so fast that it came and went in a flash. We hardly saw it and the Queen certainly wouldn’t have seen us since we looked down facing her direction of travel. Did our teachers put us there (out of Republican sentiment perhaps, since we were mostly at least half-Irish) or is it just my unconscious that constructs the memory that way. Or that nobody instructed to drag us out there had any idea where the Queen was going or coming from. The little flags had no more outings. They weren’t us. Nor was the Queen.
In the 70s I often went out and about with a camera and I have a series of pictures from the Royal Jubilee in 1977, where there is a grotesque amount of Union Jack waving. That same year, in August, the National Front marched through Lewisham carrying industrial-size Union Jacks on long poles and placards inciting racial hatred. This was to be an extremely violent event and it was most fully documented in Camerawork magazine with the pictures of freelance press photographers. I’ve just been looking at my copy of that issue; those Union Jacks are very menacing.
Not a flag to be proud of. Flags have to be benign, untainted by racism or overweening nationalism in the way this flag of empire has become.
It might soon become obsolete, if Scotland does achieve independence, or Ireland unites. But now that it has become the flag of Brexit it has already had its day.
Scotland continues to fly the European flag above the Holyrood parliament. Why shouldn’t we elsewhere follow suit? We could ask our town halls to raise it (assuming we live in non-Tory remain constituencies where such a plea might be welcome). I suggest this because bereft of European comfort I feel the need to cling to some benign and positive emblem: a show of European solidarity.
Yesterday, as a kind of solace, I listened to Beethoven’s ninth Symphony, which concludes with the Ode to Joy, the composer’s expression of the French Revolution’s ideals and the EU anthem. It would be good to hear this wonderful, uplifting masterpiece played more often in public – and there can’t be any ban on that. Personally, I’d recommend that it be played at the end of every classical music concert, which makes perfect sense since these are so often performed by international musicians. Otherwise we have no anthem. Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen are an utter disgrace, the musical debris of empire. Ditto Land of Hope and Glory. And it wouldn’t take a Beethoven to write a superior replacement for them.
For now, I’m signing up to ask for individual EU citizenship through the campaign for an EU associate membership scheme. It might not result in the desired document, but if millions of us do it we keep our European flame alive. So please join me:
https://www.stayeuropean.org/?fbclid=IwAR3bE9Y9EKxdOroM-hIZ1YWeakVgOzo77mkX9zJF0zqUAUO81HyaFUhWL9E
We only lost because we were out-manoeuvred by the December election. And the parties promising a second referendum got more votes in total than those supporting Brexit. Doesn’t that make us the people’s voice? Let us continue to be listened to.

What Kind of Nationalism Won?

December 13, 2019 § 4 Comments

There’s no good way of thinking about this election outcome. I still feel numb, weirdly detached from the cold reality of it. Perhaps I’m unconsciously waiting for some remedy to be found, though I know this is futile. We all need defences when on the brink of despair and depression. Maybe it’s too soon to contemplate what lies ahead? The shape of things to come is ugly, for sure.

Since the exit polls were broadcast last night I’ve spoken briefly to three friends, but I lacked the urge to talk about what’s happened. It’s as if all has already been said in many prior conversations where fears were aired, hopes expressed, different scenarios discussed. Being optimistic against the odds means not being prepared for the worst.

I was one of those who welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; I signed up to support it and when he won I joined the Labour Party for the first time in my life. It was the politics that inspired me, its agenda for equality, for just apportioning of resources in this wealthy country. I am also one of those who became gradually disappointed by Corbyn’s responses to the difficulties he faced, and these were enormous: the obscenely right-wing nature of the British press, its mass power only contradicted by few and marginal liberal exceptions, its assertions continuously filtering into radio and TV coverage; the undermining force of Blairite Labour; the slurs, smears and endless misrepresentations. These hostile and ferocious attacks called for tougher, faster, steelier reactions that would have been out of character with Corbyn’s mildness. It seemed to me too that he was often ill-advised. He was, after all, an accidental leader, one with great integrity but ill-equipped as a strategist.

Yet the election campaign produced such a widespread will to defeat the Tories, such a generous surge of activism and heartfelt doorstep campaigning, such a rise in participation by the young, together with incontrovertible evidence of Johnson’s lies, incompetence and self-serving intentions, that optimism was bound to flourish.

A big question remains: why did the Tory leader win when his dishonesty and heartlessness were so flagrant? It’s staggering to consider that his victory was achieved thanks to the votes of those who have most to lose from it. Those who will suffer most from the next five years of Tory government are working-class people in the poorest parts of England, formerly Labour-voting constituencies. It isn’t just because they didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn. And why did ‘getting Brexit done’ count for more than anything else?

This morning I read Gary Younge in The Guardian – one of the paper’s best staffers. His piece addressed the question of why the opposition failed: a speedy but perceptive post-mortem acknowledging all the complications involved. He notes that this is no victory for centrism and that Labour will now have to ‘face the fact that the electorate did not abandon Labour for the centre. They went either to the far right, in England and Wales, or to the social democratic nationalist alternative, in Scotland.’

This description of the SNP’s appeal made me pause. It’s a mistake often made by English commentators not familiar with Scottish political history over the last few decades. Nationalism was not at the root of the rise in support for the SNP electorally; it was rather a long-accreted disillusionment with the Labour machine. And it came most strenuously from the left-wing heartlands of West Central Scotland, my own place of origin, because the SNP agenda was closer to what Labour had once meant. Closer than Blairism. Many of those who voted for the resurgent SNP were not nationalists, though by 2014 independence began to look increasingly like an option, while a federalist option (disallowed by David Cameron) might have won the day. Scotland didn’t vote for Thatcher, and Scotland didn’t vote to leave the EU. A further independence referendum might well result in a reluctant departure from the UK. If this is nationalism, it is of a progressive and internationalist kind.

What lies behind the rise in working-class support for the Tories in the rundown regions of England strikes me now as something truly sinister and frightening: it’s a noxious variety of English nationalism. It has thrived thanks to UKIP and the Brexit party, whose xenophobic mantras have been taken up by the current Tory leader and his cohorts. It breeds racism, it relies on distortions of British history and failings in education; it plays on myths of Empire and English greatness, and the erroneous notion that England was always ‘free’ in relation to the rest of Europe. It seems to have triumphed.

Remembering (and Mis-remembering) Tiananmen

June 4, 2019 § Leave a comment

This is what I blogged five years ago on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today is the 30th.
Last weekend I saw Jia Zhangke’s film, A Touch of Sin, in which he continues to show us how life in China is shaped by the economic and social upheavals initiated in the 1980s. In Platform (2000), set on a remote edge of the Great Wall as that decade proceeds, and Still Life (2006), shot in the midst of flooding for the Three Gorges Dam, the country’s physical and moral landscape is seen to be degraded in the interests of a brutal free-market capitalism driven by a dictatorial and corrupt state. All the while that state still describes itself as Communist.
Both Platform and Still Life intimate the staggeringly destructive speed at which changes have been imposed. Enormous disparities in wealth have arisen as the fruits of China’s globalised economy fall into the hands of the few. There is an expanding middle class, but also a large and growing class of the industrially exploited, the displaced and dispossessed, who are merely the tools of this enrichment. A Touch of Sin draws its material from actual events to create a contemporary compendium of four intertwined stories whose characters have reached a breaking point that provokes extreme violence. This is China as the Wild West, a place of lawless greed, sickening corruption and shocking despair. I’ve seen only these three of Jia Zhangke’s films, but their beauty and squalor stay in the mind. They indict the crime of inflicting the drudgery and tedium of lives with their potential squeezed out. If cinema can have a poetics of boredom while never being boring, Jia Zhangke is its master.
I hadn’t noticed that the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was imminent. Once reminded, I remembered how, 25 years ago, we were gripped by what was happening in Beijing and beyond. Night after night we watched the news as, through May into June, the student occupation grew, prompting huge demonstrations by its sympathisers in Beijing. The capital was the focus, Tiananmen the symbolic space for resistance, but we heard too about the surge of protest in cities across China: Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing (names that meant nothing until located on an atlas), and Shanghai – where factory workers went on strike, as did railway workers elsewhere. These shared the Tiananmen students’ demands for greater freedom of speech and of the press, and for a return to workers’ control in industry. The principle of equality prevailed along with the call for freedom; we watched students in Tiananmen Square singing the Internationale.
Our warm feelings of solidarity were shattered by disbelief at the savagery of the outcome, at the knowledge that the millions watching live TV from sofas all over the world had been of no avail, afforded no protection. All we could do was join a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in London.
But it matters that we saw, even though we saw little of the murderous repression that followed (Beijing became unsafe for curious journalists, with or without cameras). In 2014, for all the contradictions of its apparent openness, much in China’s vastness is hidden from foreign eyes. It ruthlessly continues to persecute protesters and suppress democracy, maintaining a state of amnesia about 1989 through internet censorship. It goes on giving the lie to Western claims that a free market will inevitably lead to a free society, as if capitalism itself were a prerequisite for democracy.
On Wednesday, the anniversary, I watched Newsnight. After some footage of Tiananmen and the account of a photographer who was there, there came a studio discussion with three guests: Wuer Kaixi, a former student leader who is now a merchant banker in Taiwan, Keju Jin, an LSE lecturer in economics and Martin Jacques, in the 1980s editor of Marxism Today, a publication whose title was in itself contentious, given its Euro-Communist roots and its appeal to the right wing of the Labour Party. While the ex-dissident spoke vaguely about being anti-Communist, the latter two proved to be apologists for the Chinese regime, the woman from the LSE blandly pronouncing that the Tiananmen massacre was insignificant compared with the fact of  ‘800 million people lifted out of poverty’. Martin Jacques echoed her point that there is not enough emphasis on major improvements in China and agreed on the need for ‘stability’ if there is to be economic development. Even more astonishing was his dismissal of Tiananmen’s significance: ‘It wasn’t a China-wide movement that drew in loads of people’, he said, blatantly contradicting recorded coverage at the time.
I wondered at the absence of the BBC’s own highly regarded China editor, Carrie Gracie, who has been filing TV and radio reports since the 90s, and of any notable China specialists: scholars, researchers or journalists with sound experience of the country and the events of 1989. This shabby discussion left the impression of a last-minute cobbling together for an unplanned slot. Not just shabby, but shameful. Newsnight has been sadly in decline ever since the Jimmy Saville debacle, when several of its more distinguished journalists left the programme. But its coverage of Tiananmen hit a very low point. It’s what impelled me to write this piece.
Isobel Hilton has been researching China for some four decades. You can read her New Statesman article of June 4 online:
http://www.newstatesman.com/2014/05/tiananmen-s-hungry-ghosts
If you’re too young to remember Tiananmen you can also read the Amnesty International report published in August 1989. It gives a detailed chronicle of what happened in Beijing and an account of the following days in Chengdu, when more than 300 workers and students were killed.
http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA17/009/1990/en/f5924218-ee6a-11dd-96f1-9fdd7e6f4873/asa170091990en.html
Some years ago I saw a documentary screened by Channel 4 on the Tiananmen aftermath, filmed by stealth as the students’ parents converged on the square demanding to know what had happened to their children. Wave after wave of them were shot. When I googled yesterday I could find no reference to this film (if anyone knows about it, please tell me). However, my googling threw up something unexpected: the US National Security Archive documents on Tiananmen Square in 1989. These include cables from the US ambassador, commenting on the situation. One document describes splits in the military and fighting between different military units: ‘By the morning of 6 June it appeared that the situation in Beijing was teetering on the brink of political chaos or even civil war…’
You can read these at:
http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/#d13
Another way to remember Tiananmen would be to see A Touch of Sin. It is one more of the regime’s contradictions that Jia Zhangke is allowed to make his films.

Roma

January 3, 2019 § Leave a comment

Roma’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, has described it as ‘a year in the life of a family and a country’ and so it is, but what he’s done with this framework is something formally and thematically more ambitious.
Cuarón acknowledges the autobiographical roots of the film. Roma is the district of Mexico City where he grew up, in the spacious modern house of a bourgeois family cosseted by the labour of servants. His central character is the nanny cum maid of all work, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), inspired by his own nanny, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated. With affection and devotion Cleo looks after the family’s four children as well as doing housework and calmly containing the crisis of the parents’ marital breakup. In return she is loved but often bears the brunt of the mother’s angry unhappiness at her husband’s disappearance to live with another woman.
Class becomes immediately apparent as racial hierarchy: Cleo is a dark-skinned india from Oaxaca who speaks the indigenous language with her friend Adela, the cook, while speaking Spanish to her employers, their children and their dog, Borras (subtitling indicates which). There are many dogs in the film, guard dogs or hunting dogs treated by their owners with a carelessness bordering on cruelty, rather as they take their servants for granted. Borras is confined mainly to the building’s roofless tiled entrance, where cars are narrowly parked. In the film’s opening shot a murky puddle of water fills the screen. Someone or something is sweeping it, clearing it, until it suddenly reflects the sky and a plane far above. The shot opens out to show us Cleo with a broom; later, when we see her perform the same chore we realise she’s repeatedly cleaning up dog mess.
Throughout, the camera is either observing Cleo or taking her perspective as she observes others. We wait some time before we are allowed her face in close-up. First we watch her at work, with an attention to labour and its surroundings that’s reminiscent of Italian neorealism, all the more so because the film is in black and white, monochrome being more consonant with memory than colour. This is above all the monochrome of the Italians; Antonioni and, in particular, Fellini resonate. It’s sharp though sometimes greyish, sometimes harshly sunlit, yet, whatever the season, the light always feels muted – memory again, its distance and the distance of those movies that influence its feel and look. For the streets of the city instead there’s Hollywood widescreen, with virtuoso lateral tracking shots as Cleo walks quickly and purposefully across its intersecting bustle and traffic.
The camera is nearly always on the move, shifting angles, following the family up and down the stairs of the Mexico City house, panning around a vast room crowded with people and sofas at the country estate where they’ve gone with Cleo to spend Christmas, pausing to scan detail in smoky close-up: brimming ashtrays, glasses, sweet wrappers, comic strips (I spotted Nancy, which I instantly recalled from my childhood, but in colour). Sometimes it fastens on unlikely objects: the front of a car that’s struggling to fit into that narrow entrance, driven by the shadowy father who is soon to vanish.
In its search for memory Roma is a very Proustian film, and just as Proust’s great work becomes more and more surreal as it progresses to its end, so in Roma there are times when memory melts into dream-like hallucination, notably at that country retreat. We watch the bourgeoisie on a little spree of animal-killing sport on the bank of a river or lake. We don’t actually see what they’re shooting at, just their enthusiasm for the opportunity, and in which they encourage the children. The scene becomes even more grotesque when a forest fire breaks out in the night and the party continues in its midst. Luis Buñuel made 20 films in Mexico over 15 years, so Cuarón might have had him in mind here, consciously or otherwise.
The year encompassed by the film includes Cleo’s pregnancy and the Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, when a student demonstration was attacked by state-sponsored paramilitaries who killed 120 people. These events form part of Roma’s narrative, in a way that brings those vicious killings frighteningly close. There’s an undercurrent of violence evident not only within the fractured family and fights between two of the boys, but in the nature of the society and the city, its machismo and the lurking contempt for women made plain by Cleo’s boyfriend. But villainy or heroism isn’t cut and dried. We catch sight of the children’s father again in the hospital – a decent, dutiful doctor.
Roma is imbued with love for the cinema and it sets out to capture the speed and density of the world as immersive experience, layered both in image and in sound: conversations half heard, a small earthquake, music on the street, the maternity ward where the camera clings to a traumatised Cleo about to give birth and where we hear women’s screams of pain all around. There’s the everyday and there are strangenesses: the youngest of the children chatters about the life he had before he was born. The long takes and frequently deployed deep focus cram the screen with movement and objects; sound and image, light and shadow together create an uncanny sense of being present. The senses are enveloped by the thunderous waves at Vera Cruz that threaten Cleo and the children, and us too, it feels. We are in that water and its danger, one of several highly charged moments.
It’s the stunning beauty of the mise en scène that conjoins the epic and the intimate in this film, and it’s as much a source of its life and emotional power as the skills and direction of its actors.
Cleo does not articulate herself in words, she is still and self-contained until a final cathartic release of feeling. But all along we see her strength and courage as well as her socially-decreed entrapment.
Two days before seeing Roma I saw Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters. They are very different but have some similarities. Both are about the family as connection other than the ties of blood. In Roma Cleo’s familial status goes unacknowledged, yet the children and their mother have an intense emotional dependence on her as well as a practical need. The family of marginal workers and petty thieves in Shoplifters wills itself together for love and mutual support through unorthodox forms of adoption. Shoplifters is an oblique portrait of the gig economy and its consequences in contemporary Japan, Roma shows us a specific cultural and political moment in Mexico’s history, a moment of land grabs by the powerful as well as brutal state repression in the city.

The Wife

October 6, 2018 § 4 Comments

images
The opening scene of The Wife is a scene from a happy marriage: a couple in their 60s in bed together, awake in the middle of the night because he, the writer Joe Castleman, is full of nerves at the prospect of receiving or not receiving a morning call from the Nobel committee to tell him he’s won the prize for literature. They laugh and joke, attempt sex and laugh a bit more before sleeping. The call comes and it makes them even happier, both of them bouncing up and down on the bed, chanting ‘We’ve won the Nobel!’ before wife Joan calms down the boyish silliness and sensibly reminds Joe that the day ahead will be busy.
Joan is played by Glenn Close. She is the film’s centre and the camera’s darling – it never leaves her face alone, so that in close-up after close-up, we see the subtlety of her acting, the extraordinary eloquence of the eyes that even closed speak volumes, her mouth taking over to relay messages from them. I wondered why it was that though a Hollywood star, she has never starred in an outstanding film.
What do those eyes tell us? They intimate a range of feelings, but so insistent are the close-ups that we know they are suggesting a whole hidden narrative, and fairly soon we understand from them that not all is well between Joan and Joe (Jonathan Pryce), particularly once they reach their hotel in Stockholm and preparations begin for the grand awards ceremony. ‘I don’t want you to thank me in your speech’, she says.
By then we’ve seen the first of Joan’s memory-flashbacks to her youth – the film unfolds in 1994. In 1958 Joan was a young student at a college where Joe, already married, was her literature professor. He flirted with her and praised her writing talent. Next, they are married and Joe is writing a novel that Joan takes to the publishing house where she works. Small revelations unfold.
While in 1994 Joan displays impeccable wifely devotion, her quietly expressive face and her flashbacks nudge us towards an answer to what’s being hidden. Meanwhile, Joe’s importunate would-be biographer, Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), drops heavy hints in the same direction, and David, the couple’s discontented son, blurts out his suspicions.
It struck me that what was being suggested, hinted at or openly suspected might just be a red herring, so obvious that something more complicated was bound to emerge.
Of course, I’m not supposed to give too much away, although I imagine that most of you reading this will have already seen the film. I’ll stick to what it might be implying about writers, male and female.
Women in the 19th century sometimes had to use male pseudonyms or resort to initials to get published; women in the mid-20th century were often viewed with condescension or contempt by the men who ran publishing; women in succeeding decades continued to be paid smaller advances than men and be less favourably reviewed (or not at all) by the men who populated review pages.
These days, when editors’ choices have been partially usurped by accountants and marketing people, one can assume that men still have the major say. In Britain, with the exception of Virago, the sundry feminist presses launched in the 1970s have disappeared (the only new arrival is the tiny, but admirably committed Silver Press, set up in 2016). Yet their influence has been long-lived. Publishing has always been harder for women, but it’s got better and better, and that’s because of the networks of writers, editors and readers that grew out of the women’s liberation movement and women’s increasing visibility in public life. The same goes for Nobel Prize winners in literature, with almost as many women laureates in these early years of the 21st century than in the whole of the 20th– an acceleration that started in the early 90s with Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison – though they still fall short of being 50%.
The film doesn’t enter into any of this history and it appears to conflate the two periods of its narrative, as if nothing had been achieved in between 1958 and 1994, either in publishing as an industry or through female authors’ perspective on the world. It shows us the young Joan (Close’s daughter, Annie Starke) at a literary event with the cartoonish figure of an ageing and embittered author (Elizabeth McGovern) who urges her to abandon her writing ambitions because women don’t get read. More than 30 years later the older Joan tells Bone that the writing life wasn’t for her because she’s shy and doesn’t like the limelight, while acknowledging that she has made sacrifices for her husband’s sake.
We do discover the precise nature of those sacrifices, but questions remain. What were the big ideas in Joe’s first book, ideas that the young Joan felt were beyond her talents? We’ll never know, nor do we know anything about the themes of his work, its perspective on the world. All we have is the Nobel speech with its eulogies to his insights and his prose style. The film is all broad strokes and emphatic signalling, without any meaningful detail.
There’s no interrogation of a marriage that, though conventional on the surface, could only practically function by other means. One line of dialogue made me laugh out loud: Joe’s, in the middle of a confrontation between the couple: ‘What about all the cooking, all the childcare…’– nicely ironic, but a role reversal that’s hard to disguise from the world at large, yet oddly unnoticed.
It’s hard to believe that the young Joan, already a woman of considerable strengths and maturity, could fall in love with a brash, insensitive and immature young man, and sustain 36 years of married life marred by his serial infidelities, while making such sacrifices for his benefit. An unlikely bargain.
So unlikely that The Wife could have been much more effective as a comedy.
Instead, we are in the realm of the nebulous and artlessly artificial. Visually, the film is uninteresting, which is of a piece with the shortcomings of the screenplay and its schematic progress, these partly saved by Close’s bravura acting and Pryce’s solid performance; they flesh it out into something we are meant to take seriously and they make it watchable, if ultimately unsatisfying.

May Days

May 5, 2018 § 4 Comments

 

In Kristin Ross’s lively and illuminating book, Communal Luxury, she quotes a passage from Louise Michel’s memoirs of the Paris Commune. Michel is on sentry duty along with a black African formerly of the Papal Guards. He asks her:

– What effect does the life we are leading have on you?

– Well, I said, the effect of seeing before us a shore that we have to reach.

– For me, he replied, the effect is one of reading a book with pictures.

This brief dialogue vibrates with modernity, its speakers inserting themselves into the future: she anticipates change beyond what she can yet envisage, he has escaped from another life into a vivid new narrative. Similarly interrogating the perspectives of its protagonists, Communal Luxury considers the experience of the Commune as it was lived and thought of, both then and in the later thinking of its survivors.

For a long time I’d regarded Louise Michel as a mythic figure, a heroine of what I thought of as an almost mythic event, the short-lived spring of 1871 that ended in tragedy on May 28. I’d always associated her with ‘The Hands of Jeanne-Marie’, Rimbaud’s poem in praise of the women who took part in building and defending the Commune. Rimbaud’s dazzlingly patterned words don’t readily yield to translation or any simplifying interpretation; they create a powerful stream of images that concludes with those hands bloodied and in chains, as tens of thousands were when destined for the firing squad or deportation to the Pacific colony of New Caledonia after the Commune’s suppression. It was a surprise when a few years ago I saw an exhibition in Montmartre that displayed a newspaper interview with Michel, some photographs included. Instantly, despite the blurry newsprint, she became real, a modern individual.

Poetry is one dimension of the Commune; so many poets were involved in it, both great names we can recognise and those of workers whose schooling came through their politics – one of the latter, Eugène Pottier, wrote the Internationale as the savage executions were underway in June 1871. Painters too were Communards. At the same time, this was a worker-led insurrection.

Insurrection suggests a spontaneous uprising, which at a certain moment it was. But it didn’t begin just with the refusal to hand over the Montmartre cannons at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The Commune was some years in the making. It lasted just over two months, and its achievements in democratic self-government were extraordinary. It made a statement of intent against the death penalty by burning the guillotine. Had it not been compelled to defend itself in a civil war – a national army against the people of Paris – it would have happily espoused pacifism. Using the writings and speeches of the Communards, Ross’s book explores its origins and points the way to its afterlife. What’s revealed is a prescience about our own past century, in description and diagnosis, and, in action, an aspiration to be ‘not the capital of France but an autonomous collective in a universal federation of peoples’:  something more than an internationalist blueprint for the years that flowed from 1968.

Women played a huge part in the Commune, first through the debating clubs that thrived from 1868 – ‘a quasi-Brechtian merging of pedagogy and entertainment’ – then through the influential Women’s Union that brought together workers in the garment trades and others. As well as pursuing the goal of ending gender-based inequality, its members fought on the barricades, set up co-ops and organised crêches. The Commune adopted equal pay for male and female teachers and initiated major changes in education, for children and adults alike. Training workers to become teachers was part of its overall aim of breaking down divisions of labour between manual and intellectual workers.

Sundry fascinating figures populate the Commune. Among them is the geographer Elisée Reclus, who already saw the havoc wreaked by capitalism’s onslaughts on the land and the oceans, its threat to the existence of species, and foresaw the coming of agribusiness worldwide. His passion for ecology paralleled the ardour of his commitment to anarchist communism. I first encountered him in a published collection of photographs by Nadar, his portrait next to that of the writer Jules Vallès, another Communard, both devouring the eye of the camera with great intensity.

Reclus put the figure of the Commune’s executed dead at 30,000. He was among those banished from France (one account suggests that British geographers had petitioned for his deportation sentence to be commuted to exile), most ending up in Switzerland or Britain. From London, Geneva and Lausanne they continued to discuss, publish and uphold the ideas of the Commune: the interconnectedness of life’s every aspect in politics, from art to agriculture, science and education, and how to achieve equality through individual freedom and solidarity.

In all this the Communards both prefigured and enacted the utopianism of 1968 and the decade or so that followed. Through the late 60s and the 70s, in that period of great optimism which we simply took for granted, more and more experiences of everyday life, work and culture became the material of politics and saw a flourishing of movements for change. The Women’s Movement grew into a network of collectives and campaigns whose concerns often overlapped while being particular. Solidarity again became a watchword.

I don’t see 1968 as over and done with, and I no longer see the Commune as a tragedy. Reading Communal Luxury I had an exhilarating sense not of looking backwards, but forwards. Not, of course, to some repetition or renewal; the digitally driven world of 2018 might well be on another planet compared with that of 1871, and it’s certainly very different from the time of my youth, 50 years ago. But even in the harsh light of present despair and injustice, new ideas will emerge. The Communards paid a high price, yet after defeat survivors continued to learn and think hopefully about the world they’d been on the way to remaking. The Commune may seem like a miracle interrupted, but it didn’t end there.

Take your dreams for reality.  And let the realist you become demand the impossible.

Happiness

January 3, 2018 § Leave a comment

Reading Lynne Segal’s Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, I kept pausing to think and to remember.
April 30, 1975: the end of the Vietnam War; I was living in Italy and after a long morning’s teaching I always met up with a group of friends for lunch, in a trattoria frequented by the left. Throughout that last week in April excitement mounted; one of our number even decided to forego wine until Saigon fell. When it did the place buzzed with shared joy and celebratory graffiti appeared underfoot across the open squares of the carless city. It felt like the start of a better world.
The mass picket at Grunwick in 1977: a bright blue-skied day filled with optimism, as much of that decade was. There were other moments when everything seemed possible and when the mood of life at its most personal fell into alignment with a surge of public hope. Raptures to be held in memory, and maybe some I’ve forgotten. The Grunwick strike didn’t succeed, but there is something valuable in remembering how solidarity can create a heightened sense of active being.
Happiness, joy, euphoria – states that may not endure, but we’re lucky if they have some undercurrent in our lives. Even luckier if that undercurrent can sustain us through tough times.
Lynne Segal doesn’t claim to be an expert on happiness. None of us can. But her new book sets out to explore how much well-being can be nurtured or shrunk by public policies and political outcomes. It charts the development of popular resistance and egalitarian social movements, from the carnivalesque folk rituals of the Middle Ages to the 19th-century projects of Robert Owen and Edward Carpenter, by way of anarchism in theory and collective practice, on into the upheavals of the 20th and now the 21st. Throughout, Segal asks where personal and political conjoin in our experience. This ambitious task combines exhaustive research with wit and utopian commitment, and draws fruitfully on the author’s own experience.
Hard though it is to define or measure happiness, there’s plenty of evidence that people thrive best where discrepancies of income and social status prevail least. Of course I don’t remember the Labour landslide of 1945 – I was yet to be born. But it accompanied my political generation over the succeeding decades as the moment of our beginnings, the source of our belief in a future of progress towards equality, one demolished by Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 and her assault on the Welfare State.
For me the Thatcher years felt like having a permanent heavy cold. Though many of us had no illusions about Blair, we envisioned air we could breathe. As his government proceeded, depression hit; this was Labour and we had nowhere else to turn, for Labour had espoused the Tories’ neoliberalism.
How do we sustain ourselves when the well of optimism runs dry?
Love, friendship, conviviality, solidarity. What else do we share the joy of, where we can also find some promise?
Reading is usually a solitary occupation. Some novels can seem to us like secrets, with an intimate truth that parallels our own. Yet the recognition that a book I read alone also exists for many others can be a part of its potency, an experience shared even as it is particular to myself.
Before I opened Segal’s book I’d been rereading what for me is the greatest novel of the 19th century, the most alive and illuminating, the most sustaining: Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma makes for a cumbersome title by comparison with the French). It’s a novel of ideas and action, comedy and melancholy, politics and wild romantic passion. Published in 1839, it feels loosely tethered to the 18th century, while being more modern than most of the fiction published in the 19th – a century that Stendhal frequently abhorred in print for its early reversion to the forces of reaction in Europe. The first triumph of that reaction, the Battle of Waterloo, is the scene of two unforgettable chapters full of wit and irony that properly introduce us to the book’s hero, Fabrice (his heroism, like that of other characters, of an un-exalted kind). In Stendhal’s eyes, the greatest writer of all was Shakespeare, and I have yet to discover a novel more Shakespearean than this one.
Stendhal achieved no great eminence in his lifetime and some of his work was only published years later. He humorously referred to his future readers in a different era – the 1880s or the 1930s – imagining how amazed or shocked they might be by the backwardness of the world he described. His readers have indeed become a host over time and we’ve had the pleasure of knowing what he has meant to others. Simone de Beauvoir: ‘This friend of women…’; Leonardo Sciascia: ‘Lovable Stendhal…’ and many more. He strikes me as the novelist who most reflects Gramsci’s motto: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I first read La Chartreuse when I was 18 and at university. Rereading it gives me an increasing sense of shared exhilaration.
La Chartreuse ends with death, as life always does, but the want of a happy ending is of a piece with all the joy it contains. What counts is the fight for happiness and for freedom. One late but not insignificant character could even be seen as Stendhal’s anarchist: the poet and physician Ferrante Palla, a minor aristocrat sentenced to death for his politics and hiding out in the woods. He’s a crazed and wonderful embodiment of the idea that property is theft, and I’ve wondered whether Elena Ferrante took her pseudonym from him.
As her book’s epigraph Lynne Segal chose Blake’s ‘Eternity’.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
She concludes by returning to the shared joys we can derive from imagining and aiming for a better future. Whether or not we get there.
It’s not just because I’m a Scot that I find Hogmanay more meaningful than Christmas. It’s a small threshold to optimism.
HAPPY NEW YEAR.

Thursday

June 6, 2017 § 6 Comments

‘I don’t have the figures’ snapped Amber. I don’t know which figures she meant (I’d missed what preceded) but their irrelevance was surely made plain by the answer. Emily had the policing figures: ‘I’ve found them at the bottom of my handbag’ – a nice touch, more endearing than figures on an iPad – and she read them out. Labour always has the figures, even if it means a bit of rummaging. The Tories disdain exactness; it’s beneath them.

It was the Woman’s Hour election debate, this morning from 9 to 10.45, where Emily Thornberry and Amber Rudd were joined by Kirsty Blackman of the SNP and LibDem Jo Swinson – and a waffly woman from UKIP, the only one never to have been an MP. Jane Garvey handled phone-in and discussion with an even hand, upholding the programme’s general mission to keep things sisterly and civilised. (Listeners’ expectation of courtesy was what made Jeremy Corbyn’s encounter with the true-blue Emma Barnett such a shocker. Aiming to emulate the Paxman bellow and the Kuensberg snarl, and managing to outdo both in rudeness and hostility, Barnett turned what should have been an interview into a pretext for relentless verbal harassment).

Unpleasant as she is, I’ve been entertained by Amber Rudd’s recent appearances. An unexpected asset to Labour, she replaces May’s wooliness of presentation with a peremptory definiteness resting on the belief that it’s better to cow an audience than baffle it. She’s the deputy headmistress out there to bat away all the flak while headmistress May hides in her office rehearsing her Brexit lines and election victory speech. Rudd’s so bossy she’s the second coming of Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet.

Getting to know Amber on Woman’s Hour was just one more little pleasure in what’s become an increasingly enjoyable campaign. When the election was announced so many of us who had supported Corbyn feared all would be lost. But something extraordinary happened. He appeared to relish the prospect, he shone with such confidence that he clearly had a secret weapon. He is now hailed as a master of Zen – maybe that’s it. Whatever it is, his performance on the media stage has been impressive, albeit with some glitches. And the exhilaration of the manifesto! The policies we’ve waited for all our adult lives! I’ve never known such an exciting election campaign. I’ve never wanted to cheer politicians so much: Corbyn, Thornberry, Lucas and others. Cheer them because they mean what they say, because they speak the truth about the appalling corruption and inequalities of our society, and propose to remedy them. And this is new.

If the Tories win (would it be surprising, given the combined efforts of The Mail, The Sun, The Times, The Telegraph etc etc) something will still remain, have changed, and who knows what might come of that.

It isn’t only optimism that’s making me rule out that possibility. I’ve seen two Labour election broadcasts that couldn’t be bettered. I don’t know what effect such things have as campaigning tools, but Vote for Me was inspired: a series of girls and young women cheekily and sagely demanding that their parents and grandparents cast a vote for their future, for their education, health and well-being. Last night’s brought us doctors and nurses speaking to camera about the NHS with a candour and power that was heartbreaking.

There’s been heart, soul and humour in this campaign. Maybe the Tories are facing a truly irresistible force.

Liberté…

March 28, 2017 § 1 Comment

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After the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman died in January I read the last online article he published, ‘How Neoliberalism Prepared the Way for Donald Trump’. He begins by recalling Khrushchev’s indictment of Stalin in 1956 as a mere matter of ‘mistakes and deformations’ and likens this to the reactions of Hillary Clinton’s sympathisers after her election defeat: they too cited mistakes and even deformations, simultaneously leaving her neoliberal policies untainted by failure.
Outlining the historical rise of neoliberalism, Bauman reminds the reader of the Enlightenment principles embodied in what became the French Revolution’s rallying cry: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and that all three of these are dependent on the other two. You cannot have liberty without equality, and both depend on fraternity, or, in its more current translation, solidarity. They are an indivisible triad.
We’ve seen most blatantly how the idea of liberty has been abused in the U.S. Among a series of dubious and dangerous ‘freedoms’ the most Trump-fixated appears to be the freedom not to pay any tax, which is to dissociate oneself economically as an individual from social bonds and supports, to deny a very basic form of solidarity. We’ve seen how in the Brexit vote many proclaimed their wish to take their country back by becoming free of the EU. Of these some voted for Brexit and for UKIP because, living in areas of decline and deprivation, they saw themselves neglected by other parties, including and perhaps especially by Labour, traditionally the party of the working class. Until 1997, when Blair divorced it from such notions, Labour was, at least nominally, the party of equality.
The Remain campaign, including those sections of the mainstream media supporting it, wilfully refused to engage with that crucial question of who owns the country perceived to be in need of taking back. There would have to have been an acknowledgement of what underlies the profound inequality dividing Britain, and of its ‘ownership’ as part of a globalised neoliberal carve up. Margaret Thatcher began by privatising our public utilities in the 80s, and since then public assets have been sold off on a grand scale to many foreign bidders inside and outside Europe. Leaving the EU won’t bring them back.
Alas, the delusion of English superiority, a residue of Empire, proved corrosive to the Brexit vote and as a result enjoys resurgence.
From these recent examples in Britain and the US we know that people often vote fatally against their own interests (especially when they’re kept in the dark by those seeking power), and this is threatening to become a Europe-wide phenomenon. Such triumphs of the irrational have come insistently to mind as I’ve been reading the stories of Heinrich von Kleist.
Kleist was an influential figure for the German Romantic movement, but his fiction is astonishing for its modernity. It asks philosophical questions about the first two terms in that triad: Liberty and Equality, about what it means to lack power, to wield power and to resist power. It is grounded in despair over the Enlightenment’s only partial answers to those questions. Kleist, also a dramatist (his best-known play is Penthesilea), was greatly admired by Kafka and Brecht. He took his own life in 1811, at the age of 34.
Eric Rohmer’s film, La Marquise von O (1976), had been my prompt, long ago, to turn to the novella. Reading it was a revelation. The young Marquise is a widow with children who has returned to live with her loving parents after her husband’s death. Her father commands a citadel that comes under attack and is taken by Russian forces, a group of whom attempt to rape her. Rescue arrives in the shape of a handsome officer, whereupon she loses consciousness and, without hesitation, he himself takes advantage of the situation. To her complete amazement, months later she finds herself pregnant. Strange and rich in paradox, the narrative unfolds with a light-footed irony that dispels its inner darkness. Only with its ending does it truly unsettle, bringing the realisation that this is an essay on a world without freedoms for women. Outcast status is revoked here, though in two other stories women endure appalling suffering for their violations of law and religion. Elsewhere, in a brief tale of the uncanny, an old beggar woman bides her time for revenge on the wealthy aristocrat who has occasioned her death by his heartlessness.
Kleist’s modernity resides in a succinct and spare style of narration that stands back from its characters and their experience. In its coolness and economy it prefigures the 20th-century short story. The effect is devastatingly powerful, even unbearable, for what’s contained by this mastery of form is a fever, a tragic fury. With an insight and complexity that is almost prophetic, he shows us the relentlessness of injustice. One story, set in the 14th century, patterned like a vivid fairytale, ends with a form of retribution potently reminiscent of the cruelties with which the Grimm brothers often punish the evildoers who mistreat children. Kleist, however, is the acknowledged influence on them, not the other way round.
Injustice, however random or insane, seems to prevail, yet perhaps the work of Kleist that has reverberated most across the last two centuries is ‘Michael Kohlhaas’, his longest fiction, the story of a man so grievously injured and insulted by the powerful that he becomes an emblem of adamant defiance. Its historical connection to the 16th-century Peasant War in Germany is implicit. Its inspiration for J.M.Coetzee’s apartheid-era Life & Times of Michael K is evident, and the passive resistance of Herman Melville’s Bartleby might well have Kleistian origins. There have been two film adaptations, in 1969 and 2013. Michael Kohlhaas lives on.
Kleist is a writer for our times, wresting meaning from a world that appears overwhelmingly without it, undoing his own apparent pessimism with a creative answer, the writing of endless struggle. He’s a writer to love and to fear – for the terrors he saw too clearly. ‘Kleist in Thun’, a story by Robert Walser (another tortured spirit, another humbling genius, whom Susan Sontag described as the link between Kleist and Kafka) tells us ‘He is too sensitive to be happy, too haunted by all his irresolute, cautious, mistrusted feelings.’ But night soothes him: ‘The light of the lamp eliminates his image of his whereabouts, and clears his brain and he writes now.’
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Berger 2: Lost in Europe

March 10, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I never met John Berger, though I nearly did. In the spirit of the enigma here’s a piece I wrote for a collection about the intersections of reading and reality, published by Penguin in 1994 (Brought to Book, eds Ian Breakwell & Paul Hammond). It’s my recollection of a trip across central Europe in 1974.
LOST IN EUROPE
I’m in a seat by the window, but a sheet of grime shuts out the landscape going past. The train is heading north to Prague from Bratislava, but the book my nose is in takes me to Trieste. It’s John Berger’s G: 1915, not 1974; Slovenia, not Slovakia… Which is darkening anyway, outside the dirty window.
One of those journeys where you’re thrown into your imagination all the more, not because there’s nothing new to pull on your attention, but because the strangeness around you is lulled; not like being on a plane, though, where you’re dislocated, held prisoner by your placeless surroundings. Planes are distraction, not absorption; snooze, not reverie. A train travelling through the night is the space of a dream.
There are four of us in the compartment. A blank-faced, fidgety youth occupies the far corner seat next to an old woman who sits with her eyes closed, a sturdy peasant frame in a headscarf and a wide black skirt. A basket encrusted with hardened soil is planted between her feet, in it a huge pair of shears loosely wrapped in newspaper. They got on the train at different stations and in the hour or two since haven’t uttered a word. Gillian and I occasionally look up from our books and speak, in English, and neither shows any sign of noticing this foreignness.
I bury myself deeper and deeper in G: Slovenes, Italians, Austrians, riot and resistance, the Habsburg Empire in terminal spasm. In this novel time is a fraud, ‘now’ and ‘then’ collapsing into each other. Trieste itself is riven by history: a city on the cusp of shifting frontiers, languages, cultures. One of those fictions where place and time rock together in mutual instability. Where am I? When? Just the ticket for a ride across middle Europe.
We started out in Venice. Gillian had arrived along with another friend, Jan, a Czech, who had gone back to London leaving us a list of Czech friends we were to look up along the way, in Vienna, Bratislava and Prague. He and Gillian had brought me a bundle of recent paperbacks, among them G. My holiday reading.
Through the cracks in Vienna’s surface dullness, its suspect air of propriety, the past sends silent screams. At least so it seems in the fevered state I’ve entered with the onset of flu.
Schönbrunn, Prater, the Kunsthistorisches Museum are all perceived through a thickening of reality as my temperature climbs. These hallucinatory perceptions are heightened in a haze of slivovitz and schnapps that envelopes all of us: the over friendly Czech architect who gives us hospitality for two nights, the Polish-German couple who are the other houseguests. Then there’s the heat and the babble of languages in the long queue for visas at the Czech Embassy. At this point I get dizzy and faint. Where…? Against the odds we get our visas before the office closes; my head clears on the bus to Bratislava.
Bratislava is too subdued and rural, too centreless to be taken seriously as a city. The country market, the red-carpeted silence of the Lenin Museum, the high-rise flats on the outskirts where we spend a night, warmly received by two more network names: all like a rehearsal for our real destination.
But on the train Prague gets further away. Anticipation is in abeyance. Inhabiting Trieste, I find myself reluctant to arrive elsewhere and journey’s end drags me too abruptly out of fiction’s living words and sentences into the void of the waking world. On the ill-lit station platform the here and now remains obscure. The empty late-night station forecourt and the greyness that seeps towards the rest of the city give it only provisional substance. As we straggle after other passengers in the direction of the tram stop I bend Gillian’s ear, eager to talk about G now that I’ve had to stop reading it.
I’m still talking about it as the long-awaited tram jolts us off towards the centre. Everything is as dark as an East European city could be back then in the 70s, and how are we to know where to get off and how to locate the student hostel we’re supposed to stay in?
The driver, impervious to our mangled attempts at pronouncing Czech street names, waves us back along the aisle when we approach him. People stare, there are murmurs of interest at our plight, and a middle-aged woman rises and speaks to us in English. We show her the address we want to find; she says she’ll tell us when we reach the right stop. Smiles all round.
She asks are we from London. Well, yes… She has a daughter who went there in ‘68, and she hasn’t been able to see her since. We must be the daughter’s age she thinks. And she goes on talking, becoming more emotional as the tram lunges on through the still undifferentiated darkness. More people stare at us now, and at the woman, then they look away. She speaks softly.
Just as we reach the stop she scribbles an address. ‘Please come and see me,’ she says, as if our encounter had really mattered: maybe we reminded her of the exiled daughter. ‘By the way, I have an English writer staying at my flat. Perhaps you’ll meet him if you come. His name is John Berger.’
‘Look!’ I blurt, just before we leap off the tram. I’m reading one of his books.’ I pull G from my bag so that she can see its red cover. She smiles again, and gives us a wave.
‘Fancy that!’
And off we trudge into the dark, to have Prague claim us for itself and get us lost and send us wandering around in circles, tired and bedless until, around 1 a.m., it takes pity on us in the form of complete strangers on their way home. It falls to the lot of a young woman who works as a make-up artist at the TV station to give us a roof for the night. In her tiny flat she houses a splendid collection of platform shoes that have entered the country from the West, courtesy of a German boyfriend.
A few days later we think about the woman on the tram and wonder whether to pay her a visit. Our meeting had, after all, seemed fated. Odd enough even for us to doubt its reality. So one afternoon we track down the address and climb the stairs of a sombre narrow building that has two flats to each dim-lit landing. There’s not a soul about, not a sound escapes from behind any of the heavy panelled, firmly closed doors, all with solid brass nameplates.
We find the right floor, the right name. We ring the bell, whose thin tinkle barely penetrates the hush, and when nothing stirs on the other side of the door we knock, several times, hard. No one answers. We loiter for ten minutes, hoping that a neighbour might appear and gather up the loose end we now feel left with. But no one does.

Berger 1: Re-reading, Re-seeing

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

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On the side of the powerful there is a conformism of fear – they never forget the Wall – and the mouthing of words which no longer mean anything.
John Berger wasn’t referring to Donald Trump here, but concluding an essay published in 2008 where he revised his earlier unfavourable judgement of Francis Bacon. What he had in mind were the walls of exclusion and imprisonment, whether metaphorical or solid, that remained beyond the destruction of the one in Berlin.
Berger was the first art critic I read, and I’m sure that applied to many other readers of Ways of Seeing in 1972. I still have the original copyright-free edition, but I’ve lost The Moment of Cubism, the next of his books I came to. Thanks to the two companion volumes of Berger essays, Portraits and Landscapes, published by Verso in 2015 and 2016, and prompted by his death in January, I’m revisiting the Berger of more than four decades ago while discovering for the first time the prodigious range and reach of a lifetime’s writing. Portraits is structured as a compendium of 74 extracts on artists he wrote about, from the prehistoric painters of the Chauvet Caves to generations born in the 1970s and 80s. Landscapes is more theoretical in its placing of how art is culturally constituted; it also pays homage to those whose ideas have nourished Berger.
I learned only in an obituary that he was born in Stoke Newington, which adds to the lustre of this, my own part of London, with its history of dissidents. He was above all a European, his ideas developed through close engagement with the work of thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Berthold Brecht, Rosa Luxemburg and, later, Roland Barthes. His own writing encourages that sense of rich cultural connection. Reading him now, I feel I’m absorbing an antidote to some of the dread and dismay wrought by the Brexit vote.
To call him an art critic is inadequate. He was a novelist who wrote about art and a consummate essayist who looked at art from the perspectives of history, politics and cultural change, often through the fluctuations in his own experience of these wider dimensions. Accordingly, art kindled and illuminated his understandings of them. In 1963, he first saw Grünewald’s altarpiece in Colmar, a vast polyptych of saints, angels and demons, birth and resurrection, whose crucifixion panels vibrate with intense suffering and grief. He was aware only of its bleakness. Living in a time of hope: ‘I had no need for anything else.’
Seeing it again, more than a decade later, on the other side of 1968, he describes how he was forced to place himself historically:
In a period of revolutionary expectation, I saw a work of art which has survived as evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured, I see the same work miraculously offering a narrow pass across despair.
Grünewald had painted colour and light radiating within darkness, and the present is not a culmination, a peak from which we can look down on the art of the past assured of our superior progress.
Berger knew about the productive space between what the artist makes and what the viewer brings. He believed not in dogma or even certainty, but in looking hard and probing deep.
Where his thinking is imaginative rather than analytical the lines of reasoning can resemble tightrope walking. However many over-risky steps he takes, we are carried along by the passionate enthusiasm of his insights and the fullness of his conviction in telling the tale. In everything (and it’s his self-description) he is a storyteller. Or else he presents the forceful summations of an aphorist:
It is the lives lived during the last 50 years that have turned Michelangelo into a revolutionary artist. (from 1959)
Goya, the first artist of the 20th century…
What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.
All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognise.
Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.
I suspect writing about art is a vanity leading to sentences like the above. When words are applied to visual art both lose precision. Impasse.
Berger’s commitment as a Marxist and materialist was made the subtler by such recognitions. He set great store by the mysterious: what lies behind a painting or story. The original sceptics of antiquity, he says in a piece on Velazquez, ‘rejected any total explanation (or solution) concerning life because they gave priority to their experience that life really lived was an enigma.’

Hope from Hollywood?

February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

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My first experience of applause for a film was in early 1970, at a Curzon Mayfair screening of Costa-Gavras’ antifascist thriller Z. I’d gone with a Czech friend who, along with many others, had settled in London after the Soviet invasion of his country less than two years earlier. The film would have resonated as much for him as for the Greeks in the audience, hence the loud, prolonged and heartfelt clapping. Catharsis through recognition and political identification, and for others too; at the time there were dictatorships even closer to home: Spain, Portugal. Applause as the credits roll is still fairly unusual, and I’ve only ever heard it at film festivals and in arthouse cinemas. Until recently.

At a Cineworld multiplex in December I wasn’t entirely surprised by the scattered applause following Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. My surprise was greater at a local Vue last weekend, when some people stayed in their seats and clapped as the rest streamed out, after La La Land.

La La Land is a curious phenomenon. ‘THE FEEL-GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR’ screamed a full page ad in The Guardian’s Weekend section, emblazoning its accumulated five-star ratings across the LA sky and listing its multiple award nominations. Where does all this success come from?

I love musicals (films, I mean, not theatre stagings), their energy, their lavish expansiveness, their very artifice, out of which can bloom transgression and reversal of rules and expectation, and, not least, the dizzying virtuosity of the dancing. Musicals can convey meaning in so many modes, can be simultaneously simple and complicated. I’m thinking of the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movies of the 30s and 40s, Gene Kelly’s roles in Singin’ in the Rain and paired with Judy Garland in The Pirate (a kind of anti-Taming of the Shrew) I’m thinking of South Pacific and West Side Story and the sublime Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And I’m thinking of my favourite musical of all, a film joyously infused with the optimistic spirit of the 60s, which didn’t come out of Hollywood although it borrowed some of its dancers: Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), a French New Wave musical with a vital abundance of wit, glamour and irresistible music by Michel Legrand. Gene Kelly, George Chakiris, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac do the dancing, among others, while Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darrieux feature as middle-aged lost lovers. Searching, finding or failing to find is the motor of the plot, which moves in vaguely Shakespearean fashion.

Unlike most Hollywood musicals, it was filmed on location, in a made-over Rochefort which later named a square and a street after Demy and Dorléac (Deneuve’s sister, killed in a car crash soon after the film). The director of La La Land, Damien Chazelle, has acknowledged the influence of Demy, and his film’s opening, on an LA freeway, plays with immobility and motion in a way reminiscent of how Les Demoiselles begins, with travellers stepping out of their vehicles and starting to dance on what’s revealed to be the spectacular transporter bridge across the river Charente. Chazelle’s freeway sequence is terrific, a riot of primary colours and different dance styles shot from lane to lane among the stalled cars. Below them traffic flows on oblivious, in a duller parallel world.

Yet this set piece gives way to a mood that seems to derive more from Demy’s earlier film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a melancholy love story against the background of the Algerian war, sung throughout, without spoken dialogue, and forever remembered for its subsequent English-language hit, ‘I’ll Wait for You’. La La Land employs a variety of pre-existing music, but the tunes played by Ryan Gosling’s character, jazz pianist Seb, are often pastiches of Legrand’s scores for Demy’s films, which is puzzling, as if making references, or hommages, to other musicals means more than the character’s coherence. Gosling and Emma Stone don’t do a lot of dancing, and dance well enough for non-dancers, but are light-years away from the aerodynamic panache of the genre’s great exponents. The freeway sequence is a grand chorus full of diverse life, but it’s not until the film’s closing sequence that it achieves any similar vibrancy, and here the couple step happily through a vivid montage of studio sets that evoke classic musicals. What’s between beginning and end is remarkably bland, particularly once the couple’s ambitions – he for his own jazz club, she to succeed as a writer and actor – contrive to hurry them apart.

La La Land lacks two qualities that made those classic films powerful and sometimes subversive: comedy and sexual chemistry. It’s a romance without a hint of sex, unlike those films of the 30s and 40s, 50s and 60s, before on-screen nudity became prevalent, but where the potency of sexual attraction was visible, and often mixed with the comic.

Why has this film been viewed as an escapist antidote to the grim times we live in? Do audiences just leave feeling elated by that final upbeat nostalgia for the musicals of a distant Hollywood, despite the earlier mood of melancholy? Or is it the sweet, charming blandness itself that makes for the film’s appeal?

I don’t think there are any antidotes, but I’ve been gladdened by some of the new films I’ve seen in the last month and they bode well for Hollywood. The Chilean Pablo Larraín now has a foothold there. If you’ve seen Post Mortem (2010) or The Club (2015), or even his more straightforward No (2012) you’ll know his films resist easy interpretation. Jackie is no celebration of the Kennedy presidency and its Camelot myth. Kenneth Lonergan’s success with Manchester by the Sea will open more doors for future films to be financed and distributed – he’s an outstanding director and he writes intelligent screenplays. Both these filmmakers set the mind to work.

I have another favourite musical I’d like to recommend. It’s the Egyptian Youssef Chahine’s Le Destin (1997), about the 12th-century Arab philosopher Averroes in the caliphate of Al Andalus (Andalusia). Here the music (a mixture of Arab and flamenco style) and dancing (a touch of Bollywood in its exuberance) is a release of joy and sensuality. It expresses untrammelled freedom, freedom of action and ideas being the argument that runs through the film, as Al Andalus ceases to be a refuge for fugitives from France, where books and heretics alike are burned, and falls prey to punitive fundamentalism. Music, among other things, is banned.

The banning of music, or certain kinds of music, has been a feature of so many dictatorial regimes. Costa-Gavras’ Z had a score by Mikis Theodorakis, whose music was banned in the Greece of the colonels. You could be arrested if you were caught listening to it in your car; as Greeks have told me, they were careful to keep the windows rolled up. No wonder they clapped at the Curzon in 1970.

Versus and For

September 1, 2016 § 1 Comment

Cytisus_scoparius
They call us baby boomers because we were born when the birth rate peaked in the years after the Second World War (highest in 1946-1947). The phrase has become a shorthand resentfully labelling us a privileged generation. Yet the point of what benefited us – the welfare state, the NHS, greater access to education, university maintenance grants and no fees – was to erode privilege, to foster equality, by investing in children as well as infrastructure. The hero of that hour was Clement Attlee, the first Labour leader to win an overall majority, in the landslide of 1945.
Strictly speaking, he was a great reforming prime minister rather than a socialist. I wouldn’t attempt to unravel the strands of Labour-movement history knitted into that word, but it surprised me to see the description ‘democratic socialist’ on the Labour Party membership card I received last September when, along with so many others taking that unforeseen step, I joined for the first time, after Jeremy Corbyn’s election. I’d assumed that the designation must have been abandoned once Tony Blair extirpated Clause 4 from the party manifesto.
Corbyn’s election released a whirlwind of hope, not because he’s a saviour, but because until that moment the Labour Party held out only the dispiriting prospect of Blairite business as usual, the atrophied politics of the dogma that to win elections you had to pander to Middle England and resemble the Tories. How can a party call itself ‘democratic socialist’ and subscribe to the neoliberal project launched by Margaret Thatcher, how can it continue to support Tory cuts and fail to oppose the loss of workers’ rights?
We left-wing baby boomers ought to remember how that road was taken, from the promise of 1945 to 1997 and a Labour Party establishment no longer committed to any kind of equality. But time tarnishes long memories. Mine was refreshed from an unexpected source last weekend when I watched a BBC2 film I’d recorded from a month earlier: ‘Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach’ (directed by Louise Osmond). I’d expected a straightforward celebration of Loach’s achievements. What I saw was more interesting than that.
When Loach and his collaborator Tony Garnett started working at the BBC in the early 60s their dramas about working-class experience were ground-breaking. Cathy Come Home provoked a wide debate about homelessness. Kes became a classic. Versus opens with Loach’s words: ‘If you say how the world is, that should be enough. Just the sense of simple connection between people. Just being.… Politics is the essence of drama, the essence of conflict.’ This faith in a direct rendering of people’s lives, an emotional realism that will in itself reveal the truth about the world, has often been the strength of his work. Sometimes, however, it is not enough.
The Loach films I like tend to have a light, humorous touch: the elements of comic farce in Riff Raff, set on a building site and starring Ricky Tomlinson; The Angel’s Share, which offers the age-old pleasures of a folktale where the resourceful poor outwit the wealthy – it’s also an antidote to the idea of ‘Scotland’ as commodity, its Highlands and Islands and prestige whiskies peddled by grouse-shooting Anglo-Scots lairds for Trump dollars.
Less successful are the films that tackle politics on a momentous scale: the Spanish Civil War and the Irish struggle for independence. Interviewed in Versus, the actor Cillian Murphy talks about the ‘raw emotion’ that Loach aimed for in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Alas, in this film and in Land and Freedom the emotional emphasis overwhelms and confuses, so that their didactic purpose is undone, even though the audience may be moved to tears as they leave the cinema. They only affirm what we already know and feel. I can’t help but compare Loach’s methods with the work of the Liège-based Dardenne brothers (Two Days, One Night; L’Enfant; The Kid with the Bike) also didactic in approach, but more distanced, where rhythm and editing create gaps for viewers to form their own questions and construct meaning. Theirs is a quieter realism that encourages intellectual breathing space.
For all that, Loach is greatly loved across the Channel, winning sundry awards at Cannes and elsewhere. Perhaps what they specifically love is the typically English absence of philosophical intent, coupled with an un-English emotional charge. Abroad he is seen as a hero because of the enormous difficulties he has faced over censorship of his documentaries and dramas, deemed too partisan within the narrow range of judgement and opinion we still see in the media today.
Irrespective of my criticisms, I have to acknowledge Loach’s unique and important place in British filmmaking and on the British left. This map of his life as a director tortuously parallels the course of post-war politics and its relationship to culture. Who’d have thought that at the low point in his career, when his work went uncommissioned or rejected, he would be reduced to making commercials (for Caramac and McDonald’s!). ‘Me berating other people for betrayal, and I’ve done that’ he says, shamefaced.
Versus is an honest film, penetrating about the man and his politics. When it came to betrayal he could indeed be ruthlessly unsparing towards those who failed him. In his own work he shunned the concessions that might have made it more acceptable. He has always been tenacious.
Tony Garnett talks about Loach’s collaboration on documentaries with the writer Jim Allen, and his concordance with Allen’s view: ‘He knew about the betrayals of trade-union bureaucrats, that the role of the Labour Party was to deliver the working class to betrayal’. These are strong words, but it’s easy to forget that in the devastating climate of the early Thatcher years, many trade union leaders were despotic right-wingers at odds with their left-wing membership; some were instrumental in the banning of Loach’s 1983 television series ‘Questions of Leadership’. This was also the period when under Kinnock’s baleful leadership Labour Party democracy was being diminished through rulebook changes and the expulsion of left-wingers, tactics similar to those wielded today by the hierarchy against the leadership.
That was a different world, a different working-class. Trade union defeats and anti-union legislation sapped membership, industries died and the nature of employment changed. Even young people understand this, but the savagery of those times begins to fade from memory; and those of us who lived through them may prefer not to remember. The miners’ strike marked a final defeat. 30 years later, in 2014, Pride, a film directed by Matthew Warchus, took us back to it, fictionalising the events of a real alliance between London gay activists and striking Welsh miners. It had audiences weeping everywhere, not just from sorrow, but from fresh pride, making the film’s title multiply apt. Cinema can be powerful in all sorts of ways.
Fractured, neglected, super-exploited and under-represented it may be, but there is still a working-class. It took the same 30 years for the first of the upheavals to wake the Labour Party from sleepwalking over a precipice. That was the Scottish referendum in 2014. Scotland, where the party had its earliest socialist roots, came close to choosing independence in a vote boosted not so much by the nationalism that’s used as excuse and explanation, but by rejection of the Westminster stalemate: Tory rule and an official opposition to the right of the SNP. It was in the Labour heartlands of the Glasgow region and Clydeside that the Yes vote was strongest, and that choice was reflected again in the SNP’s election victory last year.
Scotland had had enough of Blair and Brown’s Labour and was unimpressed by Miliband’s diluted version. Last September Corbyn’s election as leader laid down a full-blown challenge to what had become the Blairite orthodoxy. It came from all quarters: veteran Labour members who had been loyal to the party’s socialist roots and many who had left it because of Blair and now saw a reason to return, as well as a great many new adherents, including baby boomers who had never joined before, because we hadn’t seen it as a genuine force for fundamental change – in the wake of 1968 we allied ourselves with the New Left and the sundry movements that blossomed from it.
Shocking as they are, the anti-Corbyn dirty tricks and the current repertoire of viciousness strike me as predictable. Behind them are figures who counted on having taken possession of something that has never truly belonged to them. They’re still hanging on and they’ve shown that they have no scruples. Hence what amounts to an internal civil war. It’s depressing, but there is surely cause for hope that solidarity can break through the battle lines within the party and flower again. Then we can take on the real enemy.

Don’t Take Owen Smith at Face Value

July 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Owen Smith is finding it hard to keep up with himself, with what he said in the past and its mismatch with what he’s saying now, how he thought he would have voted if he’d had the chance, and what he now thinks about what he thought then. It seems that one requirement for sustaining successful duplicity is having a very good memory. Or else a talent for making up the past, once you’ve disposed of the evidence – and Smith hasn’t.
Compared with the Owen Smith of a decade ago, the transcripts of his radio interviews this morning reveal more than a hint of naked opportunism. The ex-lobbyist for Pfizer and advocate of NHS privatisation, the man in two retrospective minds about voting to invade Iraq, is hard to reconcile with the man now announcing to the Labour Party membership: ‘I can be your champion. I am just as radical as Jeremy Corbyn’. The World at One today described him as positioned on the left and aiming to be ‘a more competent and energetic version of Jeremy Corbyn’. I think it’s a sign of desperation that the candidate put forward to fulfil this brief has a verifiable record of opposing the politics Corbyn represents, a record of Blairite values.
He has changed his mind, Smith’s supporters say. He is doing so with little apparent conviction. He is short on substance, and clearly hasn’t thought through the ideas he claims to represent.  Even on the BBC (Newsnight, I think on Monday) the rumour was aired about whether he is only being wheeled in for temporary use until a weightier Blairite figure can be found to take over before a general election.
Smith became the leadership contender only yesterday. This is the moment of media scrutiny, of briefly probing his rival’s credentials before the focus on vilifying Corbyn resumes in earnest. For now it’s an ever present background noise. I’ve noticed a worrying deployment of language. ‘Pure’ is being used to belittle Corbyn’s agenda, as if it were some kind of extreme orthodoxy, with shades of Stalinism. Worse still, on Steve Richards’ Radio 4 Corbyn series, which I listened to intermittently this morning, I heard one interviewee condemn social-media rallying to contact Labour MPs about voting intentions, referring to this mass of young Corbyn supporters as his ‘stormtroopers’.
I’ve come across a few erstwhile enthusiasts for Corbyn’s politics who say they are now thinking of voting for Owen Smith instead, in the belief that he is some kind of left-winger. I hope they take a closer look and think twice.
For a flavour of the shifts in Smith’s views, take a look at this piece that includes an interview with him in 2006:
http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/the-political-opinions-of-big-pharma-lobbyist-owen-smith/
And you can check out the following:
http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/07/stop-thinking-owen-smith-will-make-labour-party-electable
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/picture/2016/jul/19/steve-bell-on-labours-dream-ticket-from-hell-cartoon
Steve Bell (long may he thrive) has Eagle and Smith uniting as the dream ticket under the slogan VOTE OUT THE MEMBERSHIP.

WHO’S LEFT?

July 14, 2016 § 7 Comments

We’ve been spared Mrs Banker as PM. I’d imagined a summer of worries about her smuggling Nigel Farage and his cohorts into government. Instead we have St Theresa setting the tone on the doorstep of Number 10 with a speech reporters have likened to one Ed Miliband could well have made had he been so lucky. The comparison is surely cautious. Her invocation of social justice was followed by a persuasive citing of ‘burning’ wrongs to be righted; class, education, gender and race, health, poverty and housing all featured on this list. With none of Cameron’s Old Etonian glibness, she even sounded as if she meant it. It began to echo the Sermon on the Mount, it became too bold for Ed Miliband, too left-wing.
The high and mighty need not fear (and they know it) any more than the poor and lowly will be comforted. Theresa May got the job because she’s proved herself to be a safe pair of hands for keeping the Tory party in power and on course.
Yet, yet… There’s something in the air.
When Angela Eagle launched her leadership bid on Monday, she spoke about Jeremy Corbyn in a Newsnight interview with unexpected approval of his politics. Jeremy had taken the Labour Party in an important new direction, but there was a need for someone better equipped as leader to move it forward and unify the party. Did jaws drop all over England (I’m keeping the more detachable UK parts out of it for now)? Was she really endorsing Corbyn’s commitment to an anti-austerity economics, to re-nationalising the railways, to state investment where it’s needed, to ending privatisation in the NHS and wherever else it has set its greedy paws against public ownership for the public good? Well, yes! Even though she said nothing so specific, or anything clear at all about policies, who could doubt her intentions when she responded to Evan Davies’ demur about a left-right split with an emphatic ‘I’m on the left’. Davies then confronted her with her voting record (Iraq, tuition fees, benefits cuts etc) and she answered with no hesitation: ‘I was only following my party’s whip’ (you couldn’t hear the ‘only’, but it was there, just silent), unwittingly implying that she’d had no conviction about what she’d voted for, and overlooking the value of independence of spirit in a leader.
Watching this I was suddenly reminded of another bit of blatant weaselling on Newsnight, just over 19 years ago. John Prescott, the brand-new deputy leader of the Labour Party, was wriggling out of a question about being on the left of the party while teaming up with Blair. He shrugged and told his interviewer that things had changed, that old labels like that had maybe outlived their usefulness.
On the left! Since Blair’s ascendancy leading Labour politicians have made sure to repudiate the embarrassing designation. Those claiming it had to be rooted out, and they largely were. Or else they got old and took their pensions. A small few of this dying breed weathered out the decades on the back benches.
It was the Labour leader before him who started the business of futile accommodations to Conservatism, inching the party ever rightwards, before Blair took the great leap of rebranding. In the past week Kinnock and Son have done their bit towards saving that version of Labour (the ‘New’ epithet now so tainted as to be unmentionable) from Corbyn’s influence, provoking much hollow laughter. With Kinnock’s own sorry saga of leadership, you’d think they’d have stopped him from entering the fray. But they’re trying everything.
Something certainly is in the air. Owen Smith, Eagle’s fellow contender for Corbyn’s job, has told us he’s on the left too, even though it’s emerging that he is nothing of the kind (on Channel 4 News, Michael Crick brought up Smith’s support for PFI and privatisation in the NHS; see Craig Murray for more: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2016/07/entirely-fake-owen-smith/).
LEFT-WING; they’re practically shouting it. The reversal, a long time coming, is an effect of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics and their popularity. Last September his enemies in the Parliamentary Labour Party were attacking those politics, ridiculing them as unrealistic and electorally doomed, while praising him for being a decent, nice man. Now they’re pretending to have adopted them, indeed to have had faith in them all along, seeing the failure entirely in the man and his lack of qualities.
He’s been criticised for being weak, and now he’s being attacked as a bully, an accusation spurred on by a broken window at Angela Eagle’s Wallasey constituency office. Eagle told Evan Davies that Corbyn is also failing to show leadership by not stamping out the bullying. She’d had death threats. Sadly, women MPs are no strangers to death threats and every shade of online misogyny. At a meeting a few weeks ago I heard Diane Abbott speak about this as her own experience. Corbyn too has had death threats. The fault lies not at his door, it flows from the impunity with which threats of violence can be expressed on the Internet by pathetic individuals endowed with anonymity. What would Freud have made of this massive Id released into virtual life by digital technology?
Even though it exposes them in this way, politicians have an obligation to be open about what they’re doing because they represent us. So do the Labour Party’s NEC members, who are voted in by the membership. Because he argued for an open vote on whether he should automatically appear on the leadership ballot paper, Corbyn has been accused of intimidation by a female NEC member, on the grounds that she and others would be exposed to bullying if their voting choice became known. In the end the vote in Corbyn’s favour was secret.
Corbyn is popular in Eagle’s Wallasey constituency, whereas she no longer is. She is so unpopular that they’ve been making moves to de-select her, which doubtless plays a part in the personal attacks and the political change of heart. While condemning and smearing Corbyn, his leadership rivals make a show of imitating his politics. What a very sincere form of flattery. But why vote for fakes or imitations when you can have the real thing?
There is now a legal challenge to the NEC decision from a Labour donor. If that doesn’t succeed, Corbyn’s enemies will have something else up their sleeves. The enemies I’m thinking of are the ones at the top, including Blair and Mandelson. Whatever it is, Eagle and Smith may not even turn out to be part of the plan. All sorts of rumours are circulating and all of them are shameful. When Blairites are reduced to posing as left-wingers, who knows how far they’ll go.

Blair’s Downfall

July 8, 2016 § 1 Comment

Maybe we need a little comic relief.
The anti-Corbyn coup is the latest political event to get the Downfall treatment, with Bruno Ganz doing his rant as Blair:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5C5skg6Ywo

 

SINCE FRIDAY MORNING

June 28, 2016 § 4 Comments

On Friday morning I felt sick at heart with the Brexit result and I’ve had numerous conversations with others similarly stricken, most of them Corbyn supporters until now. Even before the first shadow cabinet resignations some blamed him, citing his half-hearted campaigning and marginal presence in the media. I countered that much of what he did was denied media coverage because of Tory splits and pro-Brexit bias, as well as pervasive press hostility to Corbyn himself. I observed that Alan Johnson, who was meant to be running Labour Remain, didn’t exactly distinguish himself, and no one seemed to be attacking him. Of course there was a coup in waiting.
Now that Corbyn has lost a no-confidence vote by the Parliamentary Labour Party (only 40 MPs on his side, 172 against) what future does he have as leader? A leadership contest might still place him on top with support, albeit diminished, from the membership. Would that be viable?
None of the candidates being mooted to replace him stands for what Corbyn stands for: a refusal of neoliberal economics, an anti-austerity agenda that prioritises investment in education, training and apprenticeships, workers’ rights and a decent living wage, protection of the NHS, of everything that will be further undermined by a Tory government to the right of Cameron’s regime.
Would a more enthusiastic Corbyn have saved us from the Brexit vote? I don’t think so. Honesty required an admission that the EU needed reform. Brexiteers were offering a loud cut-and-dried choice: leave and everything will change for the better. They fostered diehard notions of British superiority among ready-made malcontents, in the North-East of England, in the Welsh valleys and in East Anglia. These were former Labour heartlands now economically ruined by the legacy of Thatcher and Blair, and, if not already lost to Labour, have been inclined by despair to listen to the nationalistic urgings of UKIP.
We have a lot to fear, not just from the Tories, not just from Brexit’s economic consequences, but from the growth of UKIP-fuelled hatreds scapegoating immigrants and others, especially as Brexit’s failures to deliver become apparent. Last night I watched a Channel 4 News interview with Farage, on his chosen territory, the battlefield of the Somme, which he claims to visit at least once a year. Already he was articulating his sense that his principles are being betrayed by compromise. Despite the sombre, quiet tones appropriate to the location, this struck me as a warning statement. How is a Labour Party split in two going to fight off the threats it implies? Since Friday morning we’ve already witnessed revolting eruptions of racism that seem to be licensed by Brexit’s victory.
We face multiple crises, for which Corbyn’s resignation would not provide any answer. If there were another candidate who stood for what he represents and could prove to be a better orator, a more forceful questioner at PMQ’s, a skilful operator in a Parliamentary Labour Party where his principles remain largely unshared, then I might well opt for her or him. But there isn’t.
Should Corbyn hold on and face a general election as part of a coalition along the lines already suggested by Paul Mason and others? Is there an alternative?
I write this blog to find out what I think and know, a process of clarification. For now I’m still asking questions.

 

Ferrante’s Naples: Plebeians and Proletarians

May 6, 2016 § 1 Comment

naples-vesuvius-sea

Over the past week I’ve been listening to Lynsey Hanley reading from her book, Respectable, on Radio 4. By coincidence I was immersed in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in her Naples quartet. In different ways Hanley’s account of her 1980s working-class childhood in the English Midlands and Ferrante’s Neapolitan world of post-war poverty both connect with my own experience as a working-class child in 1950s Scotland. Hanley explores the dislocations of identity in moving from one class to another through education: ‘like emigrating from one side of the world to the other’, like travelling between ‘parallel worlds’; Ferrante’s novel recreates the past as a shifting space of economic and social change seen intimately from within the lives of characters close-knit by neighbourhood.

For a while I resisted the vogue for Ferrante. The hype put me off and I’d been unimpressed by an earlier novel of hers I read at least a decade ago. In the end, a friend thrust a copy of My Brilliant Friend into my hands and told me I had to read it, because it was so good, but also because, reading it, she had thought of me. One reason she had in mind was the little-known affinity between Naples and Glasgow, where I was born.

Twice in the 90s I visited Naples. Even though the city was more southern and more foreign than any I knew in Italy, even though it dazzled me with its light and exhilarating beauty, in a way I couldn’t explain I felt a little bit at home (Glasgow being the complicated default for that). Only later, meeting two young women from Naples engaged in postgraduate study in Glasgow, did I understand. They told me they loved Glasgow, it reminded them so much of Naples, its energy, its truculent wit. Glasgow, of course, was the great proletarian city of the 19th and 20th centuries; Naples, in the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini, was ‘the last plebeian metropolis’. Both cities have a working-class heart.

I don’t want to overdo the comparison; Glasgow can’t compete: it has shipbuilders, philosophers, one notable, much-misinterpreted economist and a great deal of proud labour history, but no volcanoes, no bay with paradisical islands. Founded as a Greek settlement, Naples is the oldest great European city outside Greece; next came the Romans, Byzantines, Goths and Normans, Angevins and Spanish, leaving sundry architectural traces; then there was the short lived and brutally concluded Parthenopean Republic of 1799. Naples derives musical fame from a string of composers including Scarlatti, Porpora, Pergolese, Cimarosa and Bellini, yet in the courtyard of its Conservatorio I remember there being only one statue, of Beethoven, which strikes me as typical Neapolitan generosity.

But just as in the 50s and 60s I found Glasgow grey and dreary, a place to be escaped from, so Lenù and Lila, Ferrante’s heroines in her epic of female friendship, carry no sense of being fortunate to inhabit Naples. Its cultural riches do not belong to them. Their lives are bounded by one small impoverished corner of the city until secondary school (in Lenù’s case) and marriage (in Lila’s) take them a little further. Shame frequently accompanies these displacements, which can also give rise to humiliation. This at a time when Italy’s boom is getting underway in the North, while in much of the South agriculture still depends on the horse and wooden plough. When a little prosperity seeps into the neighbourhood its main beneficiaries are the Solara family, wealthy thugs who rule the local economy, their investments and moneylending activities shored up by Camorra and Fascist affiliations that have an insidious reach.

Ferrante’s writing is addictive, to be relished headlong in a rush. Its dramas have a visual intensity. The pleasure of reading was deepened for me by knowing places she describes, thinking of how Lenù must be feeling on the Maronti beach where I too swam and sunbathed (It was November, but Maronti is sheltered and south facing, the best microclimate on Ischia). And I kept thinking of Rocco and His Brothers, Visconti’s masterpiece of a family’s migration from the South of Italy to the North in the 1950s. I remembered Amore Molesto (Troubling Love), a film by Mario Martone adapted from an earlier Ferrante novel that I haven’t read, and another of Martone’s Naples films, Morte di un matematico napoletano (The Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician) about Renato Caccioppoli, the grandson of Bakunin, who killed himself in the 1950s.

vesuvius-naples-sea

Ferrante’s exploration of class is all the more fascinating and complex for its intense focus on gender. The girls are aged eight when we first encounter them, taunting and daring one another to small acts of bravery, with Lila the more fearless, the one without restraint and, in Lenù’s eyes, the more powerful intelligence. We follow the tensions, rivalries, doublings, oppositions and separations of a friendship sustained, despite all, by mutual support. It is Lenù who does the telling, in first-person narration of heartbreaking candour, and everything emerges through that fragile distance as she struggles to keep up with her clever, wilful friend and to discover who and what she herself can be, her sense of self-worth constantly derailed. Their intellectual conversation begins when together they read Little Women, that childhood primer for feminism read by so many of us. It flowers, is crushed by events, and sometimes flowers again. It would make the novel sound schematic to suggest they typify in any way. They are wholly original creations, they are two and they are one, both in turmoil: the girl who does not see herself as fully formed giving a fierce reality to the girl only seen from outside whose impulses and actions often defy any logic. Both trajectories intimate the pain of challenging or splitting from a world so grounded in the injustices of class.

Reading is central to this novel at every stage. Fiction temporarily frees the reader from the limits of gender, class and geography; books can open up the world of politics and history, be a tool for understanding and creating, and a source of conflict with those who do not read. Yet knowledge through reading is not the only key you need to take a confident place in the wider world, as Lenù finds repeatedly, having entered the culture of learning, where she is an exception.

My Brilliant Friend has two girls becoming women as its fulcrum. It also illuminates the masculinity that surrounds them, violently traditional in its ideas of what it is to be a man, put under stress by corruption and economic impotence – and of men’s ideas of how women should be. From these ensue numerous domestic tragedies, in scenes vibrant with emotion, yet almost forensic. It is also mothers who beat their daughters.

Lynsey Hanley talks of casual violence as endemic in working-class life. ‘Middle-class people are nicer’ she notes. ‘They manage the dark things better, keep them hidden’. Besides, there are other ways of inflicting violence than the physical. Class still blights our lives, perhaps more than ever. Access to education has been diminished by cuts and tuition fees; pay gaps have widened, and the divisions, inequalities and embarrassments of class have grown.

Nowhere in Europe does class have such dominance as in Britain. It isn’t simply a matter of wealth. Schooling divides us and class privilege fostered by a private education system is further entrenched by networks of privilege within many professions and public institutions, by the imbalance that gives those from private schools an easy route to Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell group, to careers in publishing, journalism and broadcasting. When I was told by someone who works at the BBC that all the presenters on Radio 3 are privately educated it didn’t surprise me, given the discrepancy in resources for music education.

Dividing children by social class isn’t only a force for deprivation but a way of producing an unhealthy ignorance, a potential lack of empathy. Those educated in privilege often seem to have trouble in grasping of what their privilege consists and how anyone they meet as a social equal might have had a different kind of life, might not have family heirlooms or relatives to leave them property. Consider the small things: how speech and everyday words are stratified. I know of no other European country where meals eaten have different names according to your class: dinner in the middle of the day and tea in the evening; lunch in the middle of the day and dinner in the evening. Like Lynsey Hanley, I’ve got used to lunch and dinner, but what’s supper?

There’s one word I’d really like to get rid of in the discourse of class: aspirational. I think of it as a Thatcher/Blair word, a word I’d twin with the phrase ‘deserving poor’, except that when you’re ‘aspirational’ you’re aiming to be part of the deserving rich. It suggests that only some working-class parents want the best for their children. And it suggests a society where not all children deserve the best.

It isn’t the general custom in Italy or France for children to be sent to fee-paying secondary schools rather than the lycée or liceo. Of course there are still class divisions in Italy now, but to friends of my generation there, the British class dystopia has no parallel in their experience of school. In cities, the children of doctors and lawyers, and the grandchildren of aristocrats, often mixed in the classroom with the children of cleaners and factory workers. I recall one friend telling me about her son’s teenage years at the liceo: he would feel embarrassed when one of his better off friends who lived in spacious luxury (with a second home in the background) came to visit their cramped family flat. The embarrassments would diminish over time but there would remain a recognition of differences in wealth and parents’ status, of undesirable inequalities. Privilege needs to see itself in relation to others who are valued, and see those others not as inferiors. Turning education into a shared experience would make it richer for everyone.

Ferrante’s novels (I’ve now nearly finished the second one) are neither formally innovative nor stylishly written, but they have depth and insight and they achieve something very rare in fiction, by giving working-class characters organic life in a world of great complexity.

Rhodes Must Surely Fall

March 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

“… the establishment, promotion and development of a secret society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, The Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan…”
This is the vision of the future embodied in Cecil Rhodes’ will, which also contained a bequest to Oriel College in Oxford, the latter being the excuse repeatedly given for retaining the statue on its facade.
As well as the quotation above, I also learned from Amit Chaudhuri’s article in today’s Guardian that Oriel is well known (at least among all those who studied at that university) as the most conservative and monarchist college in the Oxford constellation. It’s all the more shameful that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign still has to battle on and that the statue’s defenders persist.
Chaudhuri’s insightful and detailed piece places the campaign (indeed he refers to it as a movement) within the much deeper context of the long fight against British colonialism and its continuing manifestations today.
http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/16/the-real-meaning-of-rhodes-must-fall

Rosa Luxemburg In Memoriam

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

Today is the anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s death in 1919. She was a revolutionary and political theorist who opposed the First World War. She believed in democracy with the widest possible mandate, from the bottom up (in this she opposed Lenin’s centralism) and she wrote on many aspects of politics and life. Along with fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, she was captured and murdered in Berlin by the proto-Nazi Freikorp militia, who shot her then threw her body into the Landwehrkanal alongside Berlin zoo. There’s a commemorative cast-iron sculpture of her name at the spot where this took place. Elsewhere in Berlin, at Rosa Luxemburg Platz, the cobblestones of the square itself have quotations from her writings set across them in bronze.
Because of her political activities she was imprisoned many times. From Breslau prison in 1917 she wrote, in a letter that expresses her kinship with all creatures deprived of their freedom, of seeing a buffalo being treated brutally for pulling a wagon too slowly. You can read this eloquent and heart-breaking letter, which the publisher Verso has posted on its website to mark the anniversary of her death:
http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1910-in-memory-of-the-great-rosa-luxemburg

Up Wollstonecraft Street and Down with Rhodes

December 29, 2015 § 5 Comments

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There’s no Wollstonecraft Street in the London A-Z, but there will be soon, in a new development behind King’s Cross, where local residents, among others, were given a say in street naming. Mary Wollstonecraft’s was the first name to be picked from a shortlist. It’s an honour long overdue for this passionate philosopher who advocated equal rights and education for both sexes, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, justly known as the mother of feminism; she died in 1797, still in her 30s.
Mary has a blue plaque in Dolben Street near where she once lodged in Southwark, put up by the local council in 2003. In 2011 Islington Council put up a green plaque on the approximate site of the girls’ school she established at Newington Green, where Newington Green Primary now stands. I was there; after the unveiling by the Council’s leader, Catherine West, and a speech by local MP Jeremy Corbyn, we crossed the road to the Unitarian Chapel on the Hackney side of the Green to hear singing by a choir of children from the school.
At the time of revolution in France the Unitarian Chapel was a hub of religious non-conformism and political dissent, and its foremost preacher, the pamphleteer Richard Price, was a central figure in Mary’s intellectual circle. Nowadays it’s open to those of all faiths and none, with not a single religious symbol in sight. I’d been in it once before when it was part of Anna Birch’s site-specific theatre project Wollstonecraftlive!, a performance series with connections to the Mary on the Green campaign for a statue to be raised on Newington Green itself as a memorial to Mary. It’s a fundraising campaign, since no official body exists to put up the money. You might have seen a recent cinema ad, Wollstonecraft the Movie, made as a short, sharp campaign booster.
Meanwhile, there’s been a different kind of attention for an already existing statue, the one on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, commemorating Cecil Rhodes. A Latin inscription beneath it pays conspicuous tribute to his ‘bountiful generosity’. The ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign for its removal began in South Africa with a focus on bringing down the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, where it carries an even more oppressive weight of symbolism than the one at Oxford.
Rhodes scholars from different parts of the world study at Oxford courtesy of the vast fortune left by him, but that fortune was amassed by land grabs and plunder as part of the 19th-century colonial enterprise. Rhodes got his hands on diamond mining rights and co-founded De Beers, later founding the Consolidated Gold Fields Company and embarking on a political career whereby his expansionist mission for Imperial takeover of wider territories was pursued through the British South Africa Company. He managed to get a country named after him: Rhodesia.
Eventually Rhodesia achieved independence and ditched the name, becoming Zimbabwe.
The value of facing up to Britain’s imperial past is lost on those who attack the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, using the flimsiest of arguments. A few days ago The Guardian published a piece by Will Hutton. ‘Rhodes cannot be expunged from the history of Oxford, Britain and South Africa,’ he insisted. The fact is that no one involved in the campaign is aiming to expunge Rhodes from history, but to ensure that his role in it is not celebrated as virtuous or heroic. You can see its stated aims here in a Telegraph article.
Hutton defends Rhodes as a man whose racist views were only those of his day, citing the ideological foibles of the young Keynes (eugenicism) and the racism of Churchill and Woodrow Wilson. The comparisons are spurious: Rhodes did not just articulate racist ideology; he enacted his British-supremacist views of black inferiority on a huge scale that brought him great wealth and power at immeasurable cost to those whose labour and dispossessed status were entailed. He was responsible for untold suffering that laid the ground for apartheid.
It is curious to make a defence of the Rhodes statue on the grounds that ‘history’ would be impugned or falsified by its removal. Countries change their names, rejecting colonial claims or for other varied reasons. Cities re-inscribe their topography when dictators rise, or they are overthrown – like many European capitals in 1945, and Madrid before and after Franco. I have a Madrid street atlas from 1969, when I lived there; the Fascist generals indexed– two pages of them – have long since disappeared from the map. This is part of the upheaval of change, from subjugation to democracy (or vice versa). A statue made of stone or bronze is potentially enduring, more than a street sign. A statue is symbolic, most often through homage to an individual. Is this individual worthy of such honour?
Statues were toppled in Eastern Europe in 1989, then in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East following the ill-fated Arab Spring. Destroying the symbols of tyranny is the work of the tigers of wrath, which Wollstonecraft’s contemporary William Blake told us were wiser than the horses of instruction. In these recent instances it was applauded by onlookers throughout the West, including Britain.
History is never over and done with, it shapes the world we live in and interpreting it is crucial to our understandings of law, custom, rights, politics and governance. Accounts of it, historiography, have varied since written records began. It’s in cities that we are most physically surrounded by its relics and commemorations: monuments, statues, the names of streets and buildings, of underground stops, railway stations and parks. They give us a brushing acquaintance with the past. In London these textures tend towards the conservative – we’re still living with the pseudo-solidities of Empire – and the bland. In the City, mediaeval remnants are smothered by what grows higher and higher on top, monuments to the soullessness of finance.
There are cheering exceptions: I remember, before apartheid ended in South Africa, going to the offices of the publisher Virago on Mandela Street in Camden, and I lived for a while in an area of Hackney where the streets and council blocks were named after poets: Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth. But go to Paris and you’re in a city that resonates with layers of culture and history, where dates and descriptions often accompany the names written into the fabric of the metropolis. And what European capital could be more alive with history than Berlin, a city that actively confronts what that past holds before, during and after the rise and fall of Nazism, using its museums and monuments to create a palimpsest that opens up those street names to memory?
So far, the best monument we have to Mary Wollstonecraft is the Unitarian Chapel. It is very proud of her, bearing her stencilled figure on the side of the building and a banner across the front writ large with the proclamation THE BIRTHPLACE OF FEMINISM.
A statue would be nice too, a different kind of landmark, more public. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long. It would be to London’s credit. And Oxford might yet decide to bring down Cecil Rhodes. There will still be enough of him left for those horses of instruction.

Hackney Flashers at Tate Britain

December 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

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The Hackney Flashers currently have a display at Tate Britain. It’s combined with a spotlight on Jo Spence, a member of the group who went on to do a photography degree and produce innovative solo work, as well as collaborating with others. She died in 1992.
One side of the room is taken up with Jo’s prints, including some from a photo-therapy project with Rosy Thomas. On the other you can see examples of Hackney Flasher pictures from Women and Work and Who’s Holding the Baby? There’s also a slideshow with images from both exhibitions.
This is material the Tate has acquired from sources other than ourselves, and it will be kept in the Tate’s archive. The curators have described us as ‘an arts collective’. Right now there is a revival of interest in 1970s photography. Hackney Flashers’ work has appeared twice this year at major art institutions, the Tate and the Hayward, and is also on permanent display in Madrid, at the Reina Sofía Museum, yet we’ve never thought of ourselves as a collective of artists (even though at least one of our number had a fine arts training). This is all accidental, deriving from the confusion between art that is agitprop and agitprop that becomes art by virtue of being in an art gallery.
Our work was made to be shown at Women’s Movement and trade union events, in libraries and community centres, and that’s where it was seen in the 70s. Of course, people can call it what they like, but we are in no doubt that what we were doing then was agitprop. Agitprop is indeed a category within art (applicable in part to the Russian avant-garde: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Tatlin, Stepanova etc – as well as to John Heartfield and Hans Haacke among others), but one which the art establishment has forgotten about, or perhaps is just uncomfortable with, because it’s political.
After much debate on the subject in the past, we have no objection to our work being seen in museum and gallery contexts, because we think it still raises questions about women’s work and childcare within a wider political framework. At the moment you can’t see it anywhere else (except on our website).
It’s a free display at the Tate and will be on for some time (on the upper level, above the ticketing area).

Simone De Beauvoir Today and Tomorrow

December 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Last week I attended a screening of Imogen Sutton’s award-winning film Daughters of De Beauvoir, which I first saw on the BBC in 1989. The film hasn’t dated; it reminds us acutely of what she meant to a nascent women’s movement in the early 1970s, and to subsequent generations. Indeed, without The Second Sex (1949, English translation 1957) it’s hard to imagine the Women’s Liberation Movement, so influential did the book prove to be for hundreds of thousands of women.

It spurred the movement’s writers and theorists to investigate women’s history and the realities of a gendered society. Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate (1971) and Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History (1973) were landmark books in this respect. Placing the growth of the movement within a wider historical and political context, Mitchell saw The Second Sex as ‘the greatest single contribution’ on the subject of women’s liberation.

In Sutton’s film a number of women talk about the impact of reading The Second Sex, as well as the later books that further developed De Beauvoir’s ideas in the light of personal experience and her feminist activism. Interviewees include the American writers Kate Millet – author of Sexual Politics (1970) – and Marge Piercy, whose novels explored utopian possibilities for women, along with the British sociologist Ann Oakley, a pioneering analyst of women’s experience as housewives. An FE teacher, Angie Pegg, describes how she saw De Beauvoir as an encouraging mother-figure who enabled her to change her life as a housewife with two young children and go to university. This was a book that changed lives.

I know it changed mine. I read it as a teenager, already at university, in 1966. This was a year before abortion became legalised, at a time when there was no Equal Pay Act, no Sex Discrimination Act and when a woman couldn’t get a mortgage. Men were the real breadwinners, married women shouldn’t take jobs away from them, university was wasted on girls – these and similar views had the currency of the changeless normal. Yet, their loudly repeated expression was a sign that these norms were being threatened. The processes of change are often obscure when you’re young and in their midst, as I was, being part of a generation that was growing up with unprecedented access to education and the expectations it raises.

In The Second Sex I found the clarity of words that explained my instinctive sense of unfairness. Women were diminished in the world and had been throughout history. This injustice filled me with anger. But De Beauvoir also allowed me to believe that I could make my own life.

At the time, reading her, I had no idea I was reading a philosopher. At university I read Plato’s Republic and Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays. While the latter was discussed in lectures, De Beauvoir, his companion and intellectual equal, wasn’t mentioned.

It can take a while for the insights bestowed on us by books to inspire action. The world, and my corner of it in particular, was a narrow place in 1966. It wasn’t until 1970 that De Beauvoir herself publicly declared ‘I am a feminist’, a commitment to a dawning movement. By then the idea that we could make our own lives had gathered potent collective force and become a conviction that the world itself could be changed. A fundamental tenet of De Beauvoir’s Existentialist thinking, it emphasised the importance of taking individual responsibility for one’s actions, but within a historical and social context.

Existentialism sets store by the truths of lived experience in relation to others. Allied with Marxism, it fostered the spirit of the New Left, the spirit behind the political movements that had their first culmination in 1968, on the heels of the anti-war movement, and, for France, the Algerian war. It was the idea of remaking the world and the self that mobilised the slogans on the walls of Paris’s left bank in May of that year: TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY; WE ARE REALISTS, WE WANT THE IMPOSSIBLE.

What I also took from reading The Second Sex and the books that De Beauvoir published later was a sense that what you did with your life, what you became, didn’t always have to be gender specific. I didn’t always have to be defined as a girl or a woman, I could be a person, freed from the otherness and limitations that notions of gender imposed. At the same time I could be a feminist.

That evening, after the film screening there was a panel discussion largely focusing on the question of De Beauvoir’s relevance for younger women today. Do they read her? What would she mean to them? Agreement prevailed that with all the legal and social progress made towards gender equality, young women still have much to contend with and new battles to fight.

The dominance of the virtual in today’s world makes consumerism increasingly inseparable from narcissism and voyeurism. This invasive cult of buying, looking and being looked at permeates daily life through social media on the Internet. Young women face pressures to spend more and more on their looks, even to have cosmetic surgery at an early age, and reports of bullying around the sending of naked pictures have become commonplace. Meanwhile, workplace misogyny and discrimination continue. The ‘everyday sexism’ of De Beauvoir’s time has not gone away. New forms of feminism have latterly been thriving, though young activists sometimes look back with some envy at the solidarity experienced in the WLM of the 70s. They’ve all heard of Simone De Beauvoir (she provided an excuse for some lame jokes on a radio programme I heard a few days ago: ‘Before They Were Famous’, so she must be), but would they find it helpful to read The Second Sex?

It all depends; some certainly would, but there’s a risk of it seeming academic at first compared with contemporary writing on the subject, whereas for my generation it was a lone beacon in the darkness. Rather than new readers resorting to a biography, I’d recommend that they take a look at a short collection of illuminating interviews, carried out over a decade (1972-1982) by Alice Schwarzer, a German journalist and co-activist in the women’s movement: Simone De Beauvoir Today. De Beauvoir’s own words in lively dialogue make a good place to start.

Not all biographies are bad, but some have set out to discredit her by alleging hypocrisies in her relationships, or by claiming that she accepted subordination to Sartre. The aim is surely to damage the value of her work by suggesting a failure at life, an example not be followed. In fact, a curious thing happened towards the end of the panel discussion last week, when someone suddenly rushed in with the remark that De Beauvoir had ‘made a mess of her own life’. To me this comment was mystifying.

De Beauvoir never wanted a conventional life with a husband and children. Her argument had always been in favour of women’s choice to say no to marriage and motherhood. Instead she had a life rich in work and achievement, in friends and lovers of both sexes. She showed a great deal of personal and political courage and, as a committed activist, strove for change on many fronts. She relished life and she wasn’t a saint. Hers strikes me as an example of a good, useful and happy life.

It was a happier life, for sure, than that of feminism’s earlier mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and let us be glad of that. Wollstonecraft too lived a passionate, albeit much shorter, life, but in the face of far more obstacles and far fewer choices.

To both of them we owe a great debt.

FEAR, LOATHING, RAGE… and DESPAIR

October 19, 2015 § 6 Comments

‘A threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security’ – David Cameron on Jeremy Corbyn.
Deploying doublespeak with inventive enthusiasm, the Tories have learned a lot from Orwell’s 1984, and they’ve found fresh inspiration in the language of their opponents (hence they are now the defenders of ‘working people’, they are concerned with ‘social justice’ and they are legislating for a ‘living wage’). This cosmetic terminology packages an agenda designed to further impoverish and disempower the poorest. Simultaneously, they aim to project the dire consequences of their policies onto the opposition, as in the instance above. At his party conference Cameron elaborated by calling Corbyn Britain-hating.
This week, with the state visit of the Chinese president, mega-celebrations will take place up and down the land. According to Xi Jinping’s advance press, Britain is now China’s best friend. The soon to be feted economic alliance (on this scale a first with any Western country) will give the validity of recognition to a brutal dictatorship that denies its people basic human rights and has built its new-found and unevenly distributed wealth on low pay, long hours and harsh employment conditions.
As part of the deal we can expect the announcement that China will be contracted to design and build a new nuclear power plant at Bradwell in Essex. Similar contracts will likely follow for Hinkley Point and Sizewell. To the alarm of cyber experts and opposition politicians Cameron has brushed aside warnings about the security implications of allowing Chinese control of such fragile and potentially dangerous installations. So much for national security.
Will construction depend on steel imported from China just as the British steel industry is being wound down? This question, from trade unions, remains unanswered. Numerous other deals are envisaged: Chinese investment in telecoms, healthcare, high-speed rail. Who will benefit from them? How will the workforce be managed? China’s unprecedented entry into the British economy comes just as the Tories are legislating to impose severe restrictions on the right to strike, indeed to criminalise aspects of trade union activism. We already have one glaring example of what we might fear: Greek workers in the port of Piraeus have lost trade union bargaining rights and work longer hours for less pay since the Chinese took it over.
It’s worth asking how much China as a new boss in Britain represents the shape of things to come. We’ve had signals. A casual observation made by health secretary Jeremy Hunt (then more forcefully reiterated at the Tory party conference) that ‘the UK must become as hard-working as China’ conveys more than a hint of what the Tories are planning.
When I think of the scope this government has to carry us into a nightmare future of ever diminishing rights and greater inequalities it makes me shudder. They are only at the start of a five-year term. A month ago I was exhilarated by Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party leadership. Those of us who supported him foresaw worse to come after a campaign where he was attacked and vilified from within his own party, and widely derided by the media. Corbyn himself gives every evidence that he is strong enough to withstand this unrelenting treatment, but it is damagingly corrosive. Many in the Parliamentary Labour Party want him to fail and in these first few weeks of his leadership we’ve seen divisions made public even from inside his shadow cabinet. Few allowances are made for his inexperience as a frontbencher. With the British press so vehemently against him, Corbyn and his team will need to be strategic and better organised if they are to hold onto their mandate. We supporters anticipated antagonism, but the reality is almost overwhelming.
Optimism is bound to fluctuate. I’m speaking for myself here, but probably not just myself, although many activists and supporters are maybe more steadfast. To be optimistic you need energy, and I was tired and already dispirited when I picked up Paul Myerscough’s LRB article ‘Corbyn in the Media’. By the time I’d read it my hopes for the success of Corbyn’s leadership were shaken.
This is a good piece of journalism. It’s not anti-Corbyn (although the London Review of Books did publish a shameful anti-Corbyn article during the leadership campaign). You can read it here:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n20/paul-myerscough/corbyn-in-the-media
The right-wing press has been savage in attacking Corbyn, but any of his supporters following the coverage throughout and since the leadership campaign will be well aware that ferocity has not been confined to the Daily Mail and its ilk. Many Guardian readers expressed their anger about how that paper aligned itself against Corbyn, and it still does. Myerscough’s examination comes with a sharp indictment of The Guardian’s reluctance to engage with Corbyn’s popularity while repeatedly casting slurs on the man and his competence (and insulting its own readers). The New Statesman has showed a similar disdain, unworthy of a magazine that once was a platform for left debate.
It is however the BBC that Myerscough identifies as the most serious threat to a fair, impartial view of the political scene. Impartiality is meant to be built in to the BBC’s workings, but in practice its notions of balance have narrowed intensely towards the right, quite flagrantly excluding Corbynites from the spectrum. Myerscough’s description of its political culture reveals some unsavoury little connections, specifically from Newsnight and Today: Evan Davis, part of the team that devised the poll tax; Chris Cook: former adviser to David Willetts; Nick Robinson: former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
We’ve read them, we’ve heard them, and we’ve known that they’re on the side of everything we deplore. But faced with the hard details of how the media establishment constitutes a closed world of hostility to everything left of Labour’s Blairite right-wing is depressing. I can’t abide Today and I rarely watch Newsnight any more. There is always Channel 4 News. But the BBC is massively influential; it carries international weight and it sets the tone and limits of discussion. Imperceptibly, it can normalise a politics that is morally disgraceful. Jeremy Hunt’s comments on the need to emulate the model of Chinese industry were shocking enough, yet what I found just as shocking was a BBC radio interview with Hunt where this statement went unchallenged and unremarked by the interviewer.
Never in my memory have we had a government so much to be feared for its threats to our freedoms and the nation’s well-being. Never has the media unleashed so much loathing on those who seek to oppose that government democratically. During the Thatcher years I used to swear a lot at the news on television, but the bastards I had in mind were the politicians. Now I’m also enraged by the broadcasters and journalists who make it easy for them.
I’ve recovered from my despondency. Sometimes it’s good to be shaken, to confront the unthinkable, the bad that might easily become worse. If we don’t have that measure we underestimate what we’re up against. A small surge of despair can have its uses. It reminds us how much is at stake.

Something in the Air

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Olivier Assayas is a director who is serious about cinema and about politics. When his Après Mai (2012) was released here two years ago, as Something in the Air, it inspired memories of living in Paris in the early 70s and the politics of that time. I wrote about the film in that context.

https://lizheron.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/after-may-1968/

Something in the Air is screened on Film4 tonight at 12:40 AM

Who Is Electable?

August 10, 2015 § 1 Comment

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I know a lot of people who plan to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. I also know a much smaller number who recognise Corbyn’s principles and strengths, and agree with his politics, yet are inclined towards either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper. This contradiction comes down to a belief that Corbyn is unelectable as Prime Minister because of public perceptions that he’s too left-wing, indeed that he is an extremist, and that media wars against him will only grow in their virulence, ultimately thwarting his chances.
It wouldn’t surprise me if some poll or other (probably already underway) came up with wider findings of this nature: that many would really like to see Corbyn at number 10, but some of these will base their leadership vote on a pragmatic choice: the only way to get the Tories out in 2020 is to settle for someone safer. In my view this is seriously mistaken.
Corbyn has become the focus of a whole new surge for change which has sundry component parts, in the protest movements of recent years and within the grassroots of the Labour Party itself. His candidacy has unlocked a mass of disaffections and the bedrock of his support is among the young, who have until now found no truly public forum that represents them, no champion for their numerous justly held grievances. What’s more, he is winning back traditional Labour voters lost in the last election (the very first television hustings, held in Nuneaton, intimated that Labour’s lack of distinctness from the Tories had played a part in its working-class swing to the Tories).
Twenty years of Blairism have weakened organised labour and led to a sense of working-class disempowerment. It is no wonder that so many are disillusioned with a party that has proved itself to be an inadequate opposition. Even in power, with Blair and Brown at the helm, it only tinkered at the edges of the neoliberalism, for with both it had remade itself in the image of Thatcherism.
There is a genuine hope that with Corbyn the Labour Party will rediscover its heart and soul. With him, the party may also rediscover its courage. As someone not driven by personal ambition, he speaks freely and boldly to the press; he stands up for himself and for his politics and he has shown that one way of handling a hostile media is not to be afraid of it or be crushed by it. It’s important to remember that he’s no lone politician, but a figure now at the centre of a genuinely democratic movement that will give his campaign buoyancy and resilience. Current Labour Party donors may well turn their backs, but money will be raised from other sources. If Corbyn wins, things are bound to be tough inside and outside Parliament, but so will any attempt to loosen the Blairite stranglehold.
What of doubts about his economic policies? The fallacy of his ‘extremism’ in the matter of Keynesianism has been amply demonstrated by distinguished economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. He himself has pointed to Germany as an example of public investment in industry. The failure of ‘austerity’ is a topic of debate all over Europe. This ground is shifting.
Is he unelectable? Those who say so while in sympathy with his arguments are overlooking something else. Who is electable? Burnham or Cooper?
Neither will deviate fundamentally from neoliberal business as usual. Their agenda won’t go beyond the tinkerings of Blair and Brown. Will that convince all those who voted Tory this year because Labour seemed no more than a clone of David Cameron’s party? Will that move the young to become engaged in winning the next election? Will that bring back the UKIP voters, not all of whom are right-wing and racist?
Right now, Corbyn looks on track to win the leadership election. But it can’t be a foregone conclusion. Every vote counts.
If Jeremy Corbyn isn’t electable in 2020, then who is? I think that’s the real question.

 

Vote for Jeremy Corbyn

July 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

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Who’d have imagined six months ago that we’d have a prominent party in Parliament with a forceful anti-austerity agenda, and, sharing it, a hugely popular candidate for the Labour leadership? The SNP and its 56 MPs now constitute a genuine, if numerically small, opposition to government policy. Having displaced the Lib Dems as the third party, they now get substantial airtime on the BBC, articulating a politics long banished from the mainstream. Jeremy Corbyn is also very much in the news, ably fending off interviewers’ slurs and earning public respect in the hustings. It takes real grit to deal with nasty attacks from an almost entirely hostile press and members of your own party.
Despite the small war of attrition waged against him by Guardian writers such as Polly Toynbee, Nick Cohen, Michael White and Jonathan Friedlander, the paper’s online poll of readers showed 78% in favour of Corbyn. The Daily Mirror’s poll results (ongoing) likewise strongly favour him and support his policies on rail renationalisation, scrapping tuition fees and Trident, and spending on the NHS and public services. His popularity among the young has given him massive visibility on social media.
What’s happening in the Labour Party itself? There is a clear anti-austerity surge from below. Corbyn so far has the highest share of constituency nominations (the leadership contest is now decided by individual votes, so these don’t strictly count, but they do give his campaign momentum) and he’s had backing from 27 of the failed Labour candidates in last May’s election. Last week’s Welfare Bill vote saw 48 Labour MPs defy the whip, including 18 of the new parliamentary intake.
There is disarray in the shadow cabinet and among leading Labour figures elsewhere, and a degree of disbelief about this unexpected turn of events: the growing possibility of a socialist becoming leader of the Labour Party. It is almost laughable that this possibility should be regarded as a threat, should be seen as lacking maturity and even legitimacy, but these responses have their origins in Tony Blair’s version of what the party needed to become: a partner in the neoliberal project.
Rallying Blair to condemn and insult those who back Corbyn may well have backfired. The Prime Minister who took us into war in Iraq seems out of touch about his standing with the British electorate. In his rivals for the leadership Corbyn is up against three shades of Blairism. Perhaps in the end he won’t win, but he’s already shown that many want to return to founding Labour principles. All it took was a little space to be created for dissent. Perhaps he will, and we’ll see Blairism ousted.
We can all vote for him if we want to see him elected as leader.
For £3 you can sign up as a registered supporter of the Labour Party by going online to its website:
http://www.labour.org.uk/w/labour-party-supporters
Or ring 0191 246 5004.
The deadline for registering is August 12.

On the Euro Summit’s Statement on Greece: First thoughts

July 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

A relatively short piece (for Varoufakis) on the Euro coup and the politics of humiliation.

Yanis Varoufakis

In the next hours and days, I shall be sitting in Parliament to assess the legislation that is part of the recent Euro Summit agreement on Greece. I am also looking forward to hearing in person from my comrades, Alexis Tsipras and Euclid Tsakalotos, who have been through so much over the past few days. Till then, I shall reserve judgment regarding the legislation before us. Meanwhile, here are some first, impressionistic thoughts stirred up by the Euro Summit’s Statement.

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TAKING ON THE HYDRA

July 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

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On Monday I watched Newsnight, something I do less and less often, its political and investigative coverage now being what it is, i.e. eviscerated. But one item made it worthwhile: a brief package commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1945 election, which was actually on Sunday. This was the first Labour government with a full working majority, the government that created the Welfare State, and as the 97-year-old Denis Healey pointed out, the government that built more public housing than any before or since. Healey won as a Labour candidate in that election. The other Labour candidate interviewed, the 100-year-old Jeremy Hutchinson (Lord Hutchinson, celebrity QC), failed in his bid for unwinnable Westminster; he retold his famous anecdote about canvassing at 10 Downing Street, where the tenant (Churchill) was away but the staff assembled to hear him ask for their votes. Peter Mandelson was the third interviewee, expressing, in circuitous terms, his unsurprising view that 1945 was ancient history. Newsnight had asked – in a nonchalant, who-cares kind of way – whither the Labour Party?
Despite its token status, this piece had an inevitable poignancy. Healey, clearly frail though with eyebrows bushier than ever, is one of the few 1945 MPs still alive, and the photographs and film footage of that great turning point could only emphasise its remoteness: or rather, our present remoteness from those hopes.
1945 was also the year when the geography of Greece as we now know it became synonymous with the national state. The Dodecanese islands, including Rhodes, had been an Italian possession, acquired in a bargain with Turkey following the end of the Ottoman occupation in 1912. Until 1943, when Nazi occupation took over, Italy had held them in a grip that got tighter with the rise of Mussolini’s fascism, imposing Italian as the language of education. With the end of the Second World War, they were finally united with the rest of Greece. By then civil war had begun.
Greece’s nineteenth century had meant the long battle for freedom from the Ottoman Turks, but 1912 had not brought peace. The experience of occupation, war, fascism, invasion and dictatorship runs through Greece’s twentieth century. Yesterday’s Guardian had an opinion piece by Michael White that gave a not entirely accurate chronology of modern Greek history and reached the conclusion that though Greece has had it tough, so have the Germans, and Greece should therefore take more responsibility for itself. Like so much of the commentary on Greece’s current crisis, this shows an extreme disregard for the relative wealth and power of nations.
The end of the Civil War saw the country broken and in right-wing hands, thanks to British, then enduring US intervention. A US-backed coup in 1967 put paid to imminent elections and set up a military dictatorship that lasted until 1974. For a host of reasons, some of them external, Greece had little scope to develop strong political institutions or to build its economy, prey to the most parasitical forms of international capitalism and vulnerable to corruption. But over and over again Greeks have fought back. And they know that they cannot afford to forget their history, ancient or otherwise. Its injustices have pressed hard, and they do now. Earlier today Alexis Tsipras addressed members of the European Parliament with a closing reminder: “Sophocles taught us that the greatest law of all human beings is justice… and I think that is something we have to remember.”
Since the recession in 2008 Greeks have suffered greatly, the poorest have experienced immiseration, and the country now faces total financial ruin. Last Sunday, following the lead of Syriza, a majority of Greeks – in every region of the country without exception – voted no to the injustices of neoliberalism, an economic system based on the inhuman laws of the free market. Neoliberal economics have sadly become an orthodoxy, subscribed to by all the dominant financial bodies and institutions, by governments the world over and by the remnants of a Labour Party that in 1945 was committed to the righting of economic wrongs, to a fairer and more just society.
As Alexis Tsipras knows, the philosophers and the dramatists of ancient Greece live on as a source of knowledge and insight. Likewise the mythology of that ancient world continues to provide us with illuminating metaphors. I see neoliberalism with its many weapons as the Hydra, a murderous monster with 100 heads. As soon as one of these was cut off two more grew in its place, unless the wound was sealed with fire. In the end Hercules defeated it. The Greeks have shown the way, despite the enormous risks involved in saying no to their creditors. Let us hope that their No vote ignites the fire we need to defeat this modern Hydra. If it does we’ll be very grateful to the Greeks, indebted to them.

Mourn for Waterloo

June 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Make Waterloo a day of mourning

It’s 200 years today since Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, widely touted as a great British triumph. But it’s not a day to celebrate. Martin Upham gives a historian’s perspective on the outcome of a battle that had the direst consequences for Europe:

http://martinupham1.com/2015/06/18/why-i-am-not-celebrating-waterloo/

Here’s to Jeremy Corbyn

June 4, 2015 § 2 Comments

Corbyn on the left, with Alexis Tsipras
Corbyn on the left, with Alexis Tsipras
It is such good news that the Islington North MP, Jeremy Corbyn, has announced he is running for the Labour leadership. He’s a highly principled and esteemed politician capable of dismantling the Tory rhetoric on the economy that has gone unchallenged by prominent Labour figures over the last five years, most significantly Ed Miliband. Those of us who have despaired over the Blairite uniformity of all the other contenders can now take heart. At least for the period of the campaign a cogent anti-austerity voice will be heard.
If there aren’t the needed 35 MPs prepared to nominate him as a candidate then we’ll know that the Labour Party has lost its way completely. Let’s hope that isn’t the case.

Spare Rib is online

June 1, 2015 § 1 Comment

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Every time I look at Spare Rib online it brings vividly to mind the excitement of politics in the 70s, and its online reincarnation cheers me up. The magazine, founded in 1972, was of central importance to the Women’s Liberation Movement. It explored every aspect of women’s lives and became a campaigning tool and a source of news about women all over the world. And, it seems, it influenced many of its readers’ daughters. All 239 issues of the magazine have been digitised by the British Library, working with a team from the former Spare Rib collective. It’s a fantastic resource for young women today and for anyone interested in that history. You can read the full run from 1972 to 1993 on the BL’s journal archives site:
https://journalarchives.jisc.ac.uk/britishlibrary/sparerib
The main BL website tells the story of Spare Rib through 24 contextual articles by staff and contributors to the magazine:
http://www.bl.uk/spare-rib
I have an article there, on photography in the magazine:
http://www.bl.uk/spare-rib/articles/photography-in-spare-rib

 

The Tyranny of Louis’ Shoes

April 22, 2015 § 3 Comments

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It’s great to see three women party leaders together on television, all of them on the left and offering a forceful challenge to Austerity. With her clear-cut Keynesian arguments and persuasively stated conviction that Britain needs to be a fairer place, Nicola Sturgeon has become the acknowledged star of the election debates. Her status as leader of the party most likely to exert influence on a minority Labour government puts her on a surer footing than the other two. Her eloquence impresses with its spontaneity as much as the well-prepared words, yet there have been no missteps, not a single faux pas. She thinks on her feet.
Enough of the foot metaphors. It’s the literal body part that’s on my mind. I feared for Nicola on last Thursday night’s BBC1 debate. Not because of her performance from the podium (incidentally, a word deriving from the Greek for foot), but as I watched her leave it and walk across the glassy platform floor, then descend towards the audience, I gasped. How easy it would have been to teeter or stumble to a fall in those aptly named ‘killer’ heels. Though Leanne Wood was equally in peril my concern was mainly for Sturgeon. I’m a Scot after all, and there would be more seats at stake should the SNP leader wind up hindering her campaign with a broken ankle. Why, I’ve been wondering, should these powerful, serious women put themselves at risk of ridicule and injury with their footwear?
I’m not criticising either of them for what they’re wearing. Female politicians are too often at the mercy of those who judge them by their appearance, while their male counterparts can take refuge in the standard uniform and the cost or cut of their dark suits makes little difference to public perceptions. Sturgeon dresses to achieve a look of control and good taste. With her neat fitted dresses and jackets she avoids over-masculine tailoring; she doesn’t stick to monochrome but her colour choices are unemphatic, her hair always impeccable, neatly moulded around her face and firmly fixed with spray. Clothes speak, especially if you’re a woman, and she clearly doesn’t want hers to be a distraction. The heels seem at odds with such containment.
Maybe it was this mismatch between styles above and below the ankle that prompted an unlikely commentator on The World at One this week to express her surprise at the heels worn by Sturgeon and Wood: Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue. Presenter Martha Kearney concurred, suggesting it might just be a matter of adding height (at least 5 inches, from what I’d seen on the debate).
Sensible shoes have been my lot for many years, and I’ve sometimes envied friends that inch or two they could add. Today’s ‘heels’ (the single word all that’s required to denote spindly height) have risen far above the stilettoes of my distant early youth (or peerie heels, as they were known in Glasgow) and I couldn’t wear those either. As Shulman and Kearney must know very well, today’s ‘heels’ are not just about height; they’re the ultimate fetish footwear, with a certain talismanic eroticism invested in height, shape and brand.
Fashionable though they are, they’re not everyday footwear; beyond the milieux of models and celebs, they make their appearance at special occasions, and when young – and not so young – women head out for an evening at clubs and parties. By day most women are walking to work in boots, trainers, flats and sand shoes. In the 50s and 60s television presenters had to appear in evening dress. Things have changed a lot, but it’s as if heels have established themselves as a new kind of formal on news programmes such as Newsnight, worn by presenters and often their female guests, many of whom are politicians or political commentators. In this context they’ve become almost compulsory, which may explain how Sturgeon and Wood were shod last Thursday.
Symbolically at least, this harks back to earlier examples of female hobbling: foot binding persisted in China until the 20th century; noble ladies in Renaissance Venice tottered around in shoes with elevated platform soles. Whether or not some women today regard their 5-inch heels as ‘empowering’, a matter of choice, a means of feeling taller, more confident, sexier, it’s curious that female public figures endowed with influence are expected literally to toe this line.
Heels acquire names: Louis, kitten, stiletto and probably sundry others. It’s the Louis that reminded me of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and Roberto Rossellini’s terrific film, made for French television in 1966: La Prise de pouvoir de Louis Quatorze. It shows how the young king, politically insecure at the start of his reign, set about bending the will of court and government alike by centring state power on himself and imposing strict and elaborate rules of fashion, decorum and manners in every aspect of court life. Hence the frills and furbelows of male dress, not least the heels – all very expensive, to say nothing of the time involved in keeping up with the fussiest details.
Though we’re not subject to such overt dictates, pressures are everywhere. It’s not just fashion’s forms that change, but its nature in relation to the times it reflects. In the 60s and 70s British fashion became anarchic and eclectic. By comparison there’s a slavishness to it now, a level of commodification that’s rooted in the world of celebs and promotes a labour-intensive and cash-intensive glamour to be aspired to. What women politicians wear is not irrelevant. I own to taking pleasure in looking at their clothes, their style, at seeing them stand out among the dark-suited men. But as women rise in number in the parliaments of Britain, they must be careful not to fall. Even Naomi Campbell did, and she’s a catwalk expert.

A History of Debt

March 15, 2015 § 1 Comment

On Friday I listened to the concluding episode in David Graeber’s Radio 4 series Promises, Promises: A History of Debt. This was in the 15-minute slot after The World at One, a lunchtime accompaniment for many who, like me, work at home. It has delivered some outstanding social history strands, running across two weeks or more. Graeber, professor of anthropology at the LSE and the author of Debt: the First 5000 Years, had 10 slots to span those five millennia and he did so with exemplary economy.
Money originated as a way of measuring debt and the spread of coinage was part of the military supply chain needed by the great empires of the ancient world. From the end of the 17th century the expansion of slavery depended on a vast network of credit. It is part of Graeber’s argument that debt has ever been the means whereby the rich enslave the poor. The Bank of England came into existence in 1694 with the first loan the bankers made to William III for his expensive wars, and since then money has been circulating government debt. This public debt, Graeber points out, is an inherent necessity of capitalism, and this makes a nonsense of analogies between domestic housekeeping and national economies.
Such a history is complicated enough, but for most of us the mystifications of neoliberal economics and the mechanisms whereby money has grown as a virtual commodity continue to be opaque. Fortunately, since 2008 we’ve had some good explainers emerging. Graeber is one of these and he brings us up to date with what lies behind the obfuscations of politicians. What Greece is up against makes it all the more urgent to understand that things can change.
I really recommend these programmes. You can still hear them on BBC iPlayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=Promises%2C%20Promises%3A%20A%20History%20of%20Debt

History Is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain

February 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

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Penelope Slinger, Lilford Hall, 1969

The Hayward’s History Is Now overflows with so much to see. A sense of too little time hurried me on from Hannah Starkey’s section and a lot of photographs, many of which were familiar from the 70s and 80s, until I finally had to slow down in the effort to make perceptual sense of Richard Hamilton’s diptych, The State.

It shows a British soldier on patrol with a telescopic rifle on a street in Northern Ireland. What’s odd is that the legs of his camouflage fatigues and the weapon in his hands stand out in sharp focus, while the hands themselves are as blurred as his camouflage-smeared face under a raised visor that appears likewise perversely sharp. You can’t do this with a camera, at least not in 1993, but what I, in my unseemly haste, had thought was a photograph turned out to be something technically more complicated, involving oils on canvas and photographic paper. The effect contributes to the unease in the figure’s stance: tense, on guard, seeming to move simultaneously forward and back, altogether in the wrong place. He’s also wearing trainers, not the footwear you’d expect.

Richard Hamilton is a presiding spirit in this show, which spans the 70 years since the end of World War II and the Labour victory of 1945. It has seven curators, all born in different decades (with the exception of the twins Jane and Louise Wilson, who share an artistic identity), and six sections that are to some degree chronological, without any rigid adherence to period. Hamilton’s screen print, Bathers (1967), appears in Richard Wentworth’s coastally-themed post-war selection, which includes work by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Paul Nash and a real decommissioned surface-to-air missile on the outside of the building. By the time I reached these the gallery was closing and I only caught a glimpse from a distance. It’s an interesting itinerary that takes you from the flat white plinths of the minimalist present on the ground floor to an upstairs space where floor and walls entice you with jostling monochrome and colour, and what those might convey about post-war optimism.

Wentworth’s wasn’t the only section I missed out on. From what little I saw of Roger Hiorns’ contribution, it looked fascinating, a kind of Foucauldian exploration of the BSE outbreak, variant CJD, the resulting national crisis and what it said about the state of the nation. I’ll be back to see it.

I’d been detained for a while in the dark, by John Akomfrah’s unmissable selection of films from the Arts Council Collection, 1968-1995. These add up to around ten hours of viewing, so I watched mainly shorts. Katrina McPherson’s Pace uses dance in experimental, high-energy mode, creating a visual-kinetic experience rather than just a film of performance; dance functions likewise as the carrier of narrative in Rodreguez King-dorset’s 1994 the beard of justice, about Winston Silcott’s wrongful imprisonment for the murder of a policeman. You can see Judith Williamson’s analysis of how advertising constructs narratives of women in daily life, A Sign is a Fine Investment, from 1983, and James Scott’s 1969 Richard Hamilton, a glorious montage of Pop Art icons and advertising hyperboles.

The state

Though seduced by the visual potency of advertising, the Pop Artists were fully alive to its manipulations and turned them to account. Hamilton features again, with The State and Greenham Common Print Portfolio (a collaboration with Jim Dine and German Fluxus artist Dieter Roth), in what for me was the highlight of the show, the Wilson sisters’ selection.

Jane and Louise Wilson set out to look at sites of ‘conflict and contention’ through the prism of artists’ responses. One of these was Greenham Common, and they bring together grainy, much enlarged photographs of women breaking through the perimeter fence, with protester Lyn Barlow’s journal from prison and their own piece Gamma, filmed in one of the Cruise missile silos – tough, disruptive images counterpointed with the delicate Print Portfolio made by those three male artists.

Rita Donagh’s aerial views of the H-blocks in the Maze prison, and Conrad Atkinson’s strip of 126 photo-based images on Northern Ireland during what was known as ‘The Troubles’, both confront politics head-on with a conceptual approach that nonetheless saw Atkinson’s series banned in the 70s for being over-sympathetic to the IRA. The mining community of Peterlee, in County Durham, connects artists’ interventions across different periods: Victor Pasmore’s 60s design for the Apollo Pavilion, the Artist Placement Group Project in the 70s and Stuart Brisley’s Beneath Dignity (1977) a work that enacts the struggle of a miner underground drilling tight seams of coal. The photographs show a performance on the shore of Lake Constance as people watch or pass by: he lies confined by a wooden frame, his writhing and twisting leaving traces on the paint splattered beneath him. This is the antithesis of the free movement in Jackson Pollock’s action painting, and a far cry from Yves Klein’s rolling blue bodies.

Cages, fences, bars and prisons – the restriction of space and freedom, ideas that are reiterated across the Wilson sisters’ choice of work. Their alignment of diverse practices and different generations achieves an urgent historical coherence in art that is confrontational while also being sophisticated.

Documentary photography had a resurgence in the 70s, helped for the first time by Arts Council funding. In the decade’s climate of deindustrialisation there were parallels with 1930s’ economic decline and an earlier documentary movement. These inform the work of photographers such as Chris Killip and Paul Trevor, shown in Hannah Starkey’s section. Here they deploy a powerful visual rhetoric in indictment of poverty as it affects whole communities, and particularly the young. Killip’s Youth, Jarrow (1976, and 40 years on from the Jarrow March) is a picture of contained desperation; Trevor’s shot of a contorted male figure, head disappearing round the high L-shape of a pillar and a parapet, offers us the Liverpool skyline in the distance and a foreground of feet clad in tattered socks with gaping holes. Both images speak with economy, their eloquence that of the body.

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Starkey’s is the section where the Hackney Flashers’ Who’s Holding the Baby? is on view, now as a slideshow. Three of us stood in front of it, marvelling at how a piece of work we made as agitprop well over 30 years ago could be having its second turn at the Hayward Gallery (the first was in 1979). Some of the best work in History Is Now could be described in terms of art as activism, while ours persists in being activism as accidental art.

Some of the slides must have been badly packed in the carousel, and these projected images were cut off at the top (we’re assured that the problem has now been remedied). When we remarked on this defect, a woman next to us said, ‘Maybe it’s deliberate’.

Art has its reasons, and its excuses…. Which brings me to the present, or rather what represents it at the entrance to the show.

These days poverty is rarely made manifest in ragged clothes or socks like the ones in Paul Trevor’s Liverpool image. The neoliberalism of the 1980s is notorious for making us first and foremost consumers rather than producers, customers rather than passengers or patients. Clothes are now cheap for us, because of globalisation, with others a continent away paying the price of their labour.

It’s easy to say that everything in our culture is commodified. Is that entirely true? It applies to many aspects of everyday life, and to a lot of art, for sure, but it isn’t over-optimistic to see that there are still artists who refuse and work against these smothering tendencies. All the stranger that Simon Fujiwara’s contribution as curator for the 21st-century section looks like a surrender to sterility. A Damien Hirst spot painting, a Hockney iPad drawing, a Sam Taylor-Johnson video of David Beckham asleep, and a few other artworks are mixed in with ‘found objects’ from the realm of the commodity: cellophane packaging from Waitrose, a Farrow & Ball colour card, a pair of Nigella Lawson salad servers, merely creating the flimsiest of ironies. What a good thing that the show only begins here, rather than have it end with this terrible dwindling.

In 1956 the Independent Group (founded at the ICA by Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and others – those Pop Artists again) put on a show at the Whitechapel Gallery whose fame lives on: This Is Tomorrow – there’s a film of it which is probably easy to track down on YouTube. The title History Is Now is uncanny in its inverse echo of that earlier show, a (not uncritical) celebration of a future opening up optimistically. It seems that in today’s difficult times we need the past, not as nostalgia, but as inspiration, and that is how most of the Hayward show’s curators seem to view it, and how artists have always worked, learning from art’s history and renewing it. For this is art that still has the power to engage our thinking, to provoke strong feelings and to energise. The triumph of History Is Now is its active reminder that ‘The Storm We Call Progress’, the title of the catalogue’s opening essay (and a quote from Walter Benjamin), is still raging.

Hackney Flashers at Four Corners

February 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

 

 

The Hackney Flashers is doing an event on the evening of Friday, March 20. This time we’ll be at Four Corners in Bethnal Green, showing and talking about our work in the 70s and discussing how it might relate to visual activism today. It’s part of Women’s History Month and you’ll find information on the Four Corners website.

http://www.fourcornersfilm.co.uk/women%27s-history-month

The event is free and you can book ahead (please do, for space is limited) with Eventbrite.

http://www.eventbrite.com/o/four-corners-7914195267?s=32672681

 

 

Hackney Flashers back at the Hayward

February 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Hackney Flashers appeared at the Hayward Gallery in 1979 as part of ‘Three Perspectives on Photography’. Nearly 36 years later we’re back there in ‘History Is Now’, a show opening next week, where seven different curators have chosen work covering Britain’s cultural history since the post-war period. Once I’ve seen it I’ll write about it here.

 

Cod-Liver Oil and Orange Juice

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Virago has just brought out Truth, Dare or Promise as an e-book. It was published originally in 1985, and reissued in 1993, but has been out of print for the last 10 years or so. Its reappearance is timely.

The idea for the book was prompted, in the early 80s, by my sense that for those of us who had grown up in the new world of the Welfare State, in the wake of the Second World War, a conception of the future had fundamentally shifted. We’d experienced the progress that extended educational opportunities beyond the privileged, and that saw the health and well-being of all children as important. We’d continued expecting things to change for the better and became a generation politically engaged to that end, on the left and in the women’s movement. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and, for the first time in our lives, we were faced with the undoing of that progress.

I wondered about how the 1950s had shaped our lives, and what, with hindsight, it had meant to be a girl then. Through my own and other women’s childhood stories I wanted to explore what we had in common in that social and political landscape, and what bearing it had on our individual and very different realities as children. So I asked 11 other women to contribute to a book that might reflect a range of childhoods and class backgrounds: urban and rural, in the North and South and Midlands of England, in Scotland and in Wales. Besides myself, the contributors are Alison Fell, Harriett Gilbert, Alison Hennegan, Ursula Huws, Gail Lewis, Julia Pascal, Stef Pixner, Denise Riley, Sheila Rowbotham, Carolyn Steedman and Valerie Walkerdine. We had benefitted from the 1944 Education Act and the subsequent expansion of higher education. We had all started out with free cod-liver oil and orange juice, and a better chance of thriving in life than any generation before us.

In 1985 the book struck a chord. It was widely and favourably reviewed. That was nearly 30 years ago (something that’s hard for me to believe). But a lot of people seem to remember it and younger generations have recently been showing interest. Perhaps it’s because, as they witness the welfare state being dismantled or privatised out of existence, they want to know about its origins. There’s also a welcome resurgence of feminism among young women. The contacts they’ve made with many of us and the conferences and debates they’ve organised suggest they are curious about the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. I thought it was time for Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the 50s to be given a new lease of life. Fortunately, Virago agreed.

Some reviews of Truth, Dare or Promise

‘This is a marvellous selection of autobiographical recollections… haunting and vivid essays of the way things were.’ Beryl Bainbridge, The Guardian

‘Again and again, the writing calls up splendidly vivid images, audible voices, places and people that have the special looming, close-up quality that belongs to childhood experience…. It was the orange juice, the schooling, the access to higher education that enabled these women to find ways of living and working so different from their mothers’…. The quality of the writing in itself suggests how valuable, how much of an investment, those “free” things were.’ Lorna Sage, The Observer

‘Some of the writing is exuberant, some ironical, some hedged about with pain, but all is deeply expressive and unsentimental… It is compulsive reading.’ Olivia Harris, New Statesman

‘Truth, Dare or Promise gave a dozen versions of autobiography, a dozen versions of the 50s – evocative, too, for men who grew up in that decade.’ Malcolm Imrie, City Limits

It’s available from Amazon

Hackney Flashers Exposed

September 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

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As part of Photomonth in East London, members of the Hackney Flashers Collective (1974-1980) will be talking about the experience of collective activism in the 1970s and considering its present relevance. We hope that younger generations will join us and contribute to the discussion.

Hackney Flashers Exposed: 40th Anniversary of a Women’s Photographic Collective

Chats Palace, Homerton

Sunday October 12, 2-5 p.m.

 

For full details follow the links below:

http://www.chatspalace.co.uk/whatson/

http://2014.photomonth.org/listings#20

http://hackneyflashers.com

What Yes is up against

September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

A heartfelt appeal from David Cameron via David Schneider:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/12/david-cameron-rallying-call-deny-scots-independence1

YES and NO

September 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

Over the past year I’ve resisted the temptation to write something about Scotland’s referendum, or rather I’ve put it off, knowing what I thought, while being uncertain of how I felt.

I was born and brought up in the West of Scotland. When I was a student at Glasgow University the SNP were known as Tartan Tories, the Conservatives officially as Unionists, sharing a name with brothers in arms in Northern Ireland. The Scotland of those days was not a joyful place, it was narrow and deprived. As soon as I could I headed for the wider, sunnier world.

On my return visits I’ve seen the country change with the passing decades. Post-industrial Glasgow became a handsomer, livelier, more confident city than the one I had known. Galleries and concert halls sprang up, life seemed less shaped by the sour dictates of religious sectarianism. Middle-class affluence was more in evidence, although the East End, where my family came from, has long ranked among the lowest levels in Europe for life expectancy, and it still does. Gradually, too, the Tory grip on Scotland was loosening; the country was moving left and so was the SNP.

In the summer of last year, after a long gap, I was back, staying with a childhood friend and her husband (who happens to be English), and, on a trip with them to the glorious island of Mull, I asked how they planned to vote in the referendum. They had always been Labour voters, on the left, with a longstanding distrust of the SNP, but they told me they’d made a decision reached by many they knew: if it looked as though the Tories would win the 2015 general election they’d be voting for independence– as the only way for anti-Tory Scotland to be represented in government.

Their thinking made sense to me – only three or four years ago I was opposed to the idea of independence. By now it seems that even were there the prospect of a Labour victory next year, few of those pragmatic Yes voters would be swayed to vote No, and the last-minute panic promises of the Westminster parties probably won’t be trusted enough to change most minds either. If Yes wins on the 18th it won’t be because of nationalism. It will be for reasons that go back to Margaret Thatcher’s policies, their continuance by New Labour, and their further implementation by the present government; it will be because of the privatisation of the NHS, because of nuclear weapons, and because there is only one Tory MP in the whole of Scotland. It will also be because David Cameron refused to allow a third option on the Referendum ballot paper: for maximum devolutionary powers (Devo-Max). Many who will vote Yes would have preferred that option, which could have brought about the beginnings of a federal UK, rather than the split we may well be facing.

The Independence campaign has had its own momentum, and one of its outcomes has been the raising of awareness on all sides. Because this is not about political parties or their leaders’ personalities (a lot of those voting Yes have no illusions about Salmond as an individual), but about fundamental questions of democracy, it has had a hugely politicising effect. The level of debate has been high, as will be the turnout.

Among the sundry vox pops on television was one on Newsnight where an Edinburgh woman said she would leave and live in England if the Yes vote won; asked why, she revealingly explained that ‘anyone with money will be taxed to the hilt’. But Scots in general are willing to pay more tax for the sake of public services and benefits. Expectations for social justice have been strengthened, as has the public resolve to make it happen. The Yes vote is strongest in Glasgow, historically a Labour city. Maybe there is also a heightened recognition of how distinct Scotland is already, and thus how well prepared to shoulder the responsibilities of statehood. Its education system, its judicial system, even its geology have always been different from those of England.

It’s risky. There’s so much that can’t be predicted, so many complicated knots to be untied if the answer is Yes: constitutional, financial, military and so on. It will mean a tough transition, and maybe a lot of bitterness on both sides of the border. But it will change things in the whole of this island for sure, and hopefully for the better. Whatever happens, Scotland will be taken more seriously. UK federalism could be the eventual result of its referendum.

Rightly, as a non-resident Scot, I don’t have a vote. If the result on the 18th is No, I’ll be disappointed. I’ll be glad if it’s Yes, but also a little sad. I’m not a nationalist, I’m a Scot and I find myself taking pride in what so many Scots have been fighting for. I’m a Londoner too. London is my home; if Scotland is independent it’s bound to feel further away.

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

September 4, 2014 § 3 Comments

The Dardenne brothers’ latest, Two Days, One Night (a Franco-Belgian co-production) appears to be a simple film, its sunlit naturalism further illuminated by the compelling presence of Marion Cotillard in every scene. That simplicity, indeed transparency, is one of its virtues. It is also one of its subtleties, because the film’s subject goes much deeper than the story of Cotillard’s character. Sandra, a young working-class woman recovering from depression, is about to return to work when a phone call brings the news that she has been voted out of a job. This prompts immediate collapse and renewed recourse to Xanax. No, says her husband Manu, you must fight. And she does, with his help.

Those of us who remember French films of the 70s that celebrated strikes and factory occupations in the wake of 1968, are looking at a different world here, one where that kind of solidarity can no longer flourish, because employment is so often structurally insecure and non-unionised. At Sandra’s factory her 16 co-workers have been told to make a choice: receive their annual bonus of €1000 or give it up to keep her in work. Either way, management wins, not just financially. Neoliberalism’s pseudo-choices make it easy to manipulate a workforce.

One of Sandra’s two supporters argues for a second ballot, secret and free of the foreman’s intimidations. The boss is blandly amenable. Over a weekend she has to convince a majority to sacrifice self-interest. Sandra is no gutsy heroine; she is emotionally fragile and without a trade union to back her up. She has to plead with her co-workers one by one, knocking on their doors, like a beggar she says, although she is never abject. It’s hard for this shaky, vulnerable woman, humiliated by her role as supplicant, but she finds the courage to state her case, founded on personal need, for a livelihood and to belong in the world of work. She is never vehement or angry.

At first the film hinges, suspensefully, on the matter of changing minds, as if each answer would involve an ethical decision, the clear alternatives of altruism and self-interest. But a wish to show solidarity can be thwarted. Whether facing sympathy, evasion or even violent hostility, Sandra discovers the home lives of her fellow workers. We see sole breadwinners, others struggling to feed a family or support a child at university, or driven by low pay into second jobs in the black economy. Gradually, the ethical axis shifts and by dint of quiet observation the Dardenne brothers bring our attention to the wider, indeed global circumstances of Sandra’s situation. Implicit questions come to the fore. How can the powerless individual bring about change? How can solidarity be created and sustained when the working class no longer has collective strength? Their film is less about the final outcome of Sandra’s struggle to win the vote than about the process itself, and about shaming the ugliness of management’s divisive manoeuvre. It hints at how strength and dignity might be regained in a world of zero hours and curtailed workers’ rights.

Where does economic responsibility lie? With the individual, so politicians tell us, in so many ways. Self-employment is touted as the answer to unemployment. Entrepreneurship is extolled as a new kind of heroism. Interestingly, Sandra’s factory is part of this new world, its business making solar panels. What could appear more publicly virtuous in our times than creating jobs that will ‘save the planet’? Yet how can we save the planet if we cannot save ourselves and others from the logic of exploitation that underlies so much of this rhetoric?

Sandra’s position is that of the individual forced to act alone. But solidarity can begin outside the workplace, with the support of love and friendship. Were it not for these she would fail to overcome the sense of despair that rears up and threatens to crush her whenever she meets rejection. The film has no cause for triumphalism, but sunlight is its visual mood and in a scene where Sandra, Manu and a friend who has just left her bullying husband are driving together, the car is filled with a sunset glow as the three sing along to Van Morrison’s Gloria. This is a moment of defiant joy, and it’s notable that the film borrows its intermittent soundtrack from the 60s and the rebellion of rock (even when sung in French by Petula Clark).

If solidarity can exist outside the workplace, it can be built on. In the course of Sandra’s search for it we witness many small rituals of respect between colleagues: the handshakes that are an everyday part of French formality, the introductions to children. In fact, the children in this film, including her own, are extraordinary, perhaps emblematic; they give directions or show the way themselves when Sandra turns up at their doors looking for a father or brother. They are treated as equals and respond with according gravity and helpful good sense.

In looking for solidarity Sandra is strengthened, not least by finding that very capacity in herself.

Flip-Flop

July 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve known Caroline Knowles for a number of years and from time to  time I’ve heard accounts of her research trips to Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Once I emailed her and got a reply from a rubbish tip outside Addis Ababa where she was busy with interviewees. She doesn’t stick to the safest, most comfortable routes on a trail, and she is more intrepid than her university will allow her to be.

The trail she’s been following is the life cycle of the flip-flop, and the results have recently been published. In Flip-Flop: a Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads she tracks its manufacture, from the plastic’s liquid source in the Kuwaiti oilfields, to the petrochemical factories of South Korea, where polyethylene and other thermoplastic resins are made, to be shipped onwards to China and the flip-flop factories around the city of Fuzhou. China has ten major container ports from which some fifteen million tons of manufactured goods are transported annually worldwide. From their forty-odd destinations Caroline chose Ethiopia as her endpoint; it’s a significant importer of flip-flops and now also produces its own (and has even started making shoes for export to Italy). That huge rubbish tip outside Addis Ababa is where the worn out articles end their days, there to be rescued (and sold for recycling) by large numbers of scavengers – modern-day chiffoniers who depend on their pickings for a livelihood, risking injury as they vie with the bulldozers.

Whether it’s the scale of Chinese shipping, the economic background to piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the chemistry of plastics or the mechanised processes of production, Caroline is punctilious in mapping the global traces of this lowly and low-cost product. The flip-flop does have its variations in quality and styling and can even be a pricey designer purchase, while at the same time being distinguished as the first form of footwear for many of the world’s poor who hitherto went barefoot. Her book offers many insights into the chain of connections required for it to reach African market stalls and European or US department stores.

Its real heart, however, lies in its probing of what all this means for the lives of those engaged in such a globally connected enterprise, and some of those for whom these connections intersect with patterns of migration – although, as we all know from daily news reports, the movement of products and the capital inherent in them is much less constrained than that of individual workers desperate to escape poverty.

There are interviews with oil workers, from a geologist to managers and derrick men at a drilling operation in the desert north of Kuwait City; in South Korea, where migrants arrive from many other parts of Asia, there’s an overview of the petrochemical boom; we learn about low-level entrepreneurship in China, about the gender division of labour in Chinese flip-flop factories, and the high-intensity demands made on some of these workers for rewards that fall far short of adequate living standards. In the Fuzhou Economic and Technical Development Zone (the Zones have their own rules and regulations) work is often precarious as rural migrants compete with the more settled labour force in and around the city. One couple interviewed, in their 80s, struggle to make a living after being torn away from farmland designated for industrial development.

People tell their stories of how work is organised and within what hierarchies, what pay means in terms of hugely varying living conditions and welfare provision, what potential exists for children’s education and for secure old age. All these are explored and set within a context of everyday life and both social and physical landscapes. This focus shows us how globalisation is experienced at the local level, at the level of individual biographies.

The flip-flop trail is only one strand in the vast economic web that we know as globalisation. It’s a good place to begin unpacking that term, to glimpse what the world’s disparities in wealth and well-being might really mean. I’d recommend starting the trail with chapter two; the first chapter is really for sociologists curious about methodologies, and can more easily be read once you finish the rest of this brave and ambitious book.

Remembering (and Mis-remembering) Tiananmen

June 7, 2014 § 3 Comments

Last weekend I saw Jia Zhangke’s film, A Touch of Sin, in which he continues to show us how life in China is shaped by the economic and social upheavals initiated in the 1980s. In Platform (2000), set on a remote edge of the Great Wall as that decade proceeds, and Still Life (2006), shot in the midst of flooding for the Three Gorges Dam, the country’s physical and moral landscape is seen to be degraded in the interests of a brutal free-market capitalism driven by a dictatorial and corrupt state. All the while that state still describes itself as Communist.

Both Platform and Still Life intimate the staggeringly destructive speed at which changes have been imposed. Enormous disparities in wealth have arisen as the fruits of China’s globalised economy fall into the hands of the few. There is an expanding middle class, but also a large and growing class of the industrially exploited, the displaced and dispossessed, who are merely the tools of this enrichment. A Touch of Sin draws its material from actual events to create a contemporary compendium of four intertwined stories whose characters have reached a breaking point that provokes extreme violence. This is China as the Wild West, a place of lawless greed, sickening corruption and shocking despair. I’ve seen only these three of Jia Zhangke’s films, but their beauty and squalor stay in the mind. They indict the crime of inflicting the drudgery and tedium of lives with their potential squeezed out. If cinema can have a poetics of boredom while never being boring, Jia Zhangke is its master.

I hadn’t noticed that the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was imminent. Once reminded, I remembered how, 25 years ago, we were gripped by what was happening in Beijing and beyond. Night after night we watched the news as, through May into June, the student occupation grew, prompting huge demonstrations by its sympathisers in Beijing. The capital was the focus, Tiananmen the symbolic space for resistance, but we heard too about the surge of protest in cities across China: Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing (names that meant nothing until located on an atlas), and Shanghai – where factory workers went on strike, as did railway workers elsewhere. These shared the Tiananmen students’ demands for greater freedom of speech and of the press, and for a return to workers’ control in industry. The principle of equality prevailed along with the call for freedom; we watched students in Tiananmen Square singing the Internationale.

Our warm feelings of solidarity were shattered by disbelief at the savagery of the outcome, at the knowledge that the millions watching live TV from sofas all over the world had been of no avail, afforded no protection. All we could do was join a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in London.

But it matters that we saw, even though we saw little of the murderous repression that followed (Beijing became unsafe for curious journalists, with or without cameras). In 2014, for all the contradictions of its apparent openness, much in China’s vastness is hidden from foreign eyes. It ruthlessly continues to persecute protesters and suppress democracy, maintaining a state of amnesia about 1989 through internet censorship. It goes on giving the lie to Western claims that a free market will inevitably lead to a free society, as if capitalism itself were a prerequisite for democracy.

On Wednesday, the anniversary, I watched Newsnight. After some footage of Tiananmen and the account of a photographer who was there, there came a studio discussion with three guests: Wuer Kaixi, a former student leader who is now a merchant banker in Taiwan, Keju Jin, an LSE lecturer in economics and Martin Jacques, in the 1980s editor of Marxism Today, a publication whose title was in itself contentious, given its Euro-Communist roots and its appeal to the right wing of the Labour Party. While the ex-dissident spoke vaguely about being anti-Communist, the latter two proved to be apologists for the Chinese regime, the woman from the LSE blandly pronouncing that the Tiananmen massacre was insignificant compared with the fact of  ‘800 million people lifted out of poverty’. Martin Jacques echoed her point that there is not enough emphasis on major improvements in China and agreed on the need for ‘stability’ if there is to be economic development. Even more astonishing was his dismissal of Tiananmen’s significance: ‘It wasn’t a China-wide movement that drew in loads of people’, he said, blatantly contradicting recorded coverage at the time.

I wondered at the absence of the BBC’s own highly regarded China editor, Carrie Gracie, who has been filing TV and radio reports since the 90s, and of any notable China specialists: scholars, researchers or journalists with sound experience of the country and the events of 1989. This shabby discussion left the impression of a last-minute cobbling together for an unplanned slot. Not just shabby, but shameful. Newsnight has been sadly in decline ever since the Jimmy Saville debacle, when several of its more distinguished journalists left the programme. But its coverage of Tiananmen hit a very low point. It’s what impelled me to write this piece.

Isobel Hilton has been researching China for some four decades. You can read her New Statesman article of June 4 online:

http://www.newstatesman.com/2014/05/tiananmen-s-hungry-ghosts

If you’re too young to remember Tiananmen you can also read the Amnesty International report published in August 1989. It gives a detailed chronicle of what happened in Beijing and an account of the following days in Chengdu, when more than 300 workers and students were killed.

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA17/009/1990/en/f5924218-ee6a-11dd-96f1-9fdd7e6f4873/asa170091990en.html

Some years ago I saw a documentary screened by Channel 4 on the Tiananmen aftermath, filmed by stealth as the students’ parents converged on the square demanding to know what had happened to their children. Wave after wave of them were shot. When I googled yesterday I could find no reference to this film (if anyone knows about it, please tell me). However, my googling threw up something unexpected: the US National Security Archive documents on Tiananmen Square in 1989. These include cables from the US ambassador, commenting on the situation. One document describes splits in the military and fighting between different military units: ‘By the morning of 6 June it appeared that the situation in Beijing was teetering on the brink of political chaos or even civil war…’

You can read these at:

http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/#d13

Another way to remember Tiananmen would be to see A Touch of Sin. It is one more of the regime’s contradictions that Jia Zhangke is allowed to make his films.

Here’s to the Collective

April 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

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Since August 2012 I’ve been meeting up (and exchanging countless emails) with a group of women I’ve known for a very long time. We had reconvened after an interval of more than 30 years. The group is a collective called the Hackney Flashers, and we’ve just launched our website, hackneyflashers.com.
Collectives were everywhere in the 70s. Collectives of filmmakers, journalists, designers and illustrators, as well as theatre groups, print shops, and groups engaged in all kinds of campaigns (including the rights of children, claimants, the mentally ill). There were Co-ops too: publishers, magazines, health food shops and more. Co-ops and collectives were the offspring of the 60s, emerging from the upheavals of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement in the US, the international ferment of the New Left. Many sprang up from the nascent women’s movement: the London Women’s Film Co-Op, the Sheffield Film Co-op, the See Red Women’s Workshop, Spare Rib magazine. In their forms and functioning they varied, but they shared a general principle of cooperation rather than competition, without hierarchy, without leaders, often aiming to share skills and expertise within their communities. Decisions were made either by consensus or majority vote. Of course there was debate – sometimes fierce – and disagreement. We took this for granted, just as we assumed that the space for such alternative modes of work and activism would continue to widen and influence many more areas of life.
I joined in 1976. By then the Flashers, for the most part photographers, had been in existence for two years and had produced an exhibition, Women and Work, that documented women’s role in the labour force in Hackney, a north-east London borough. In the early 70s there were still jobs that have since disappeared, mainly in factories making clothes and toys, as well as the jobs that women continue to do: as cleaners, hospital staff, dinner ladies and much else. The exhibition was in part commissioned by the Hackney Trades Council, to make up for the all too obvious shortfall in its planned celebration of ‘75 Years of Brotherhood’. Women and Work went on to do years of solid agitprop service at trade union conferences and Women’s Movement events.
Who’s Holding the Baby?
When I got involved the collective was beginning to think about its next project: how to explore the question of childcare provision when there was far less of it than there needed to be, which made it tricky to photograph; how do you delineate an absence, how do you clarify the structural difficulties of combining paid work with looking after children? The result, in 1978, was Who’s Holding the Baby?
The first exhibition had tinkered with photomontage, confronting stereotypes of women in magazines – whether impossibly idealised in ads for cosmetics or medicalised in those for antidepressants. Another montage highlighted the huge discrepancies between what machinists in the clothing trade were paid and what customers paid for the clothes (the target here was Simpson’s, whose factory on Stoke Newington High Street has now become a coffee shop and vintage outlet, just one of the many new faces Dalston has acquired in recent decades). Otherwise the exhibition followed the standard pairing of photographs and explanatory captions, with statistics to set women’s employment in context.
Who’s Holding the Baby? departed from this conventional visual approach. It juxtaposed and collaged images, used archive material and original cartoons, and even contributed to the graffitiscape, inscribing a Dalston wall with a spraycan protest that was then photographed and deployed in a photomontage. The core of the exhibition was a series of documentary pictures and interviews carried out over an 18-month period with parents and workers at the Market Nursery near London Fields. This was a community nursery, which meant that parents were involved in its management and played a part in day-to-day childcare there. Along with much discussion of the benefits of such an approach for children as well as adults, the interviews explored related issues such as jobs, incomes and housing.
This work produced a sequence of panels, designed for portability and touring, and left in other hands when the group dissolved. You can see most of them on the website of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. They are part of its permanent collection and got there unbeknownst to us. Subsequently we’ve discovered that panels have strayed as far as Canada. When we looked on the internet, we found inaccurate second-hand accounts of our history. Multiple confusions had arisen in part because we only ever had a collective identity, never naming ourselves as individuals. It was time, we decided, to clear these up and one result is our website, a good while in the making due to the collective process. Its completion is thanks to the hard work and design talents of Angela Stapleford, the young academic researcher who had brought us news of our presence in the digital world and elsewhere.
Art and Agitprop
Repeatedly, we have found ourselves described as a feminist art collective. Perhaps this perception derives from our participation in the Hayward Gallery 1979 show, Three Perspectives on Photography, an invitation we accepted only after lengthy discussion. Our intention was not to make art, but effective agitprop. The artist we consciously turned to for inspiration was the German communist John Heartfield, who used photomontage to attack Nazi ideology in the 1930s. Some of us knew the work of Hannah Höch from the Hayward’s 1978 exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, and it wasn’t just cultural theorists who were reading Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which first came out in Britain in 1973.
Clarifying our history required a degree of detective work; we unearthed ancient diaries and files, and together corroborated individual memories of chronology. We felt that it mattered to set the record straight because our collective history offered one example among many from the diverse network of feminisms that was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s. Who’s Holding the Baby? may be a period piece, but it remains relevant at a time when childcare is more expensive than it has ever been, particularly in Britain, where it has become increasingly privatised.
What happened to collectives?
There are sundry reasons why collectives waned, but not all collectives are dead and buried. The Hackney Flashers was fairly short lived compared to many. The heroic Amber Collective in Newcastle must hold the record for creative endurance in the face of difficult odds. It began in 1968 and went on to play a central cultural role on Tyneside. It still runs a gallery and cinema and continues to develop film and photography projects that involve local communities. ‘Amber is a commitment rather than a job’, they say on their website, and this would apply to the general ethos of the collective as a place of work. Amber is one of many collectives which by their nature depended on public funding, and its gradual diminution or withdrawal is the reason so few have survived. In London the Greater London Council’s policy of supporting employment included grants or loans to co-ops, and these came to an end when the GLC was abolished by Thatcher’s fiat in 1986. In the Thatcherite climate, public funders displayed a growing aversion to collectives. Financially self-supporting groups like the Flashers were also affected by changing times, as well as the demands of changing lives.
More generally, it’s the profound differences between now and then that tell us why collectives have become thin on the ground, and indeed why those as young as we were in the 70s often don’t understand what is meant by the term.
Unlike them, we could get by on very little money, and though finding a place to live with meagre resources wasn’t always easy, there were other options such as squatting and short-life housing. People often chose to work part-time, so as to make room for politics or collective commitments. Before privatisation, fuel bills didn’t break small budgets, and likewise public transport, including trains, didn’t have to make a profit. What’s more, we didn’t have the pressure to buy so much stuff; a lot of the stuff that now creates such pressure didn’t even exist. It must be hard for the young to imagine a world without computers and the internet, without email and mobile phones and scores of ever mutating electronic devices. It’s staggering for us to look back on it.
But what these changes, some of them potentially wonderful, have come to mean in reality is a growing commodification of everyday life. To a degree that applies to all of us, whatever our generation. This is Thatcherism’s great triumph: it changed mortgages and loans from transactions to ‘products’, and it turned housing and heating and travelling even a short distance (no longer as passengers, but as customers) into a costly business which entailed more and more work, along with greater fear of losing it. And to cope with this pressure, along comes debt, debt made easy: a modern kind of enslavement, its grip allowing scant freedom for opposition or protest. Student years, like the rest of life, have become corroded. Even the Co-op Bank, the historical antithesis of the debt trap, fell prey to banking madness and is now in dire trouble.
Solidarity was a keyword of the 70s, not ‘making a difference’, as current parlance goes, or ‘giving something back’ – both paltry notions, however well meant, since they accommodate or express gratitude to a world of ravaging inequality.
There’s a lot to be learned from the past, but nostalgia’s no cure. Brecht said something about the ‘bad new days’ mattering more than the ‘good old days’. The question is how to take them on. Despite everything, there are hopeful signs. The resurgence of feminism, in varied shapes and forms, is real and encouraging. Young women want to know about the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. Spare Rib is in the process of being digitised by the British Library, there have been events and conferences on Second Wave ideas, alongside burgeoning blogs and highly visible journalism exploring sexism now, and there are women’s groups again. It may be that these separate manifestations will come together and find common cause with other movements for change. We need solidarity. Collectives, with their deep, half-forgotten roots in the utopian and anarchist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, could thrive again.

WARNING TO PROTESTERS

January 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Cameron’s government invites us to share in celebrating their good news that the economy’s on the up and unemployment figures have fallen to just 7.1%. This in the wake of Osborne’s pre-election sweetener of an increase in the minimum wage. What rejoicing there must be at party headquarters! Yet only yesterday Chief Constables across England and Wales announced their plea for authorisation to deploy water cannon as a way of controlling street protests against “ongoing and potential future austerity measures”. How can this be, when things are going so swimmingly?

Meanwhile Boris Johnson has launched a consultation on introducing water cannon so that they can be ready for use this summer on the streets of London. It is no surprise that Boris is very much in favour. Londoners have until February 28 to contribute their views, if they should feel it’s worthwhile.

Water cannon have until now been used only in Northern Ireland. Theresa May is the one to decide whether that changes. Will she? What do you think?

OUT OF TIME

December 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Listening to the radio a few weeks ago, I heard someone I know make a throwaway remark about being middle-aged. She is 64, but some years have gone by since I saw her last, and I momentarily wondered whether she’d got off lightly and still had the joy of an unravaged face in the mirror. Then I remembered how hard it’s become to place ourselves on the spectrum of age. We talk about being ‘no longer young’ while carefully avoiding the word ‘old’. We’re not frail enough for that, and in any case we don’t feel it, and even if the young make the mistake of seeing us that way, it doesn’t count because they’re not in a position to see us as we really are: not old underneath, even if we’re grey on top.

There may be many reasons why we delude ourselves about ageing. It’s not an easy thing to accept: it involves loss, actual and prospective, of all kinds. Need I mention diminished eyesight, hearing, memory, stamina – of small account when compared with the loss of those close to us, deaths which shock us all the more in our 60s now that we’re supposed to be living into our 90s and beyond. To age is also to become less visible, to be displaced and superseded, to be viewed as a burden. So why be old when you can just be older?

Lynne Segal’s new book, Out Of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing, is a helpful and hugely bracing antidote to these interesting confusions, and it tackles the subject from every possible perspective.

Starting with fundamentals, Segal explores age differentials in the experience of growing older: between men and women, between the financially secure and the great number who scrape by on a state pension, between those who welcome a longer working life and those in physically demanding jobs that put impossible strain on ageing bodies. Ageing, undeniably, is a feminist issue – men suffer less for their grizzled locks (or the lack of locks at all) when it comes to finding a partner or keeping a job; they can still be deemed attractive, while for women the time-honoured image of the witch and the hag dies hard. Ageing is also a class issue, in terms of health and well-being, standards of housing and diet and many other things.

These discrepancies are not unrelated to the problem of what she calls ‘generational warfare’. For those of us born in the immediate post-war years (the so-called baby boomers) this division, manufactured by politicians and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic (not all of them right-wing), is particularly acute. Because of free university education in the 60s and 70s, we are charged with having used up resources that are now unavailable to the young, yet the privatisation of higher education and the institution of fees are political decisions that date back to the Thatcher era and are driven by free-market ideology. Likewise, house price inflation was not engineered by the mass of home buyers, but by speculators and bankers, all in the wake of Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policy that depleted social housing, and in the absence of secure rent controls. Those who talk about pensioners having it easy should consider that the UK state pension is one of the lowest in Europe, both in real monetary terms and as a proportion of average earnings.

Scapegoating the ‘baby boomers’ as greedy and privileged conveniently implicates us in the debt crisis and recession. But as Segal points out, it is ‘the growing inequality within, not between, the different age cohorts that underpins the current economic and social crisis’, and she names Keynesian economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman who have been making this point for years.

Her arguments are cogently made, and much needed. For me though, the book’s most fascinating sections are those where she delves deeper, into the experience of the ageing self, using fiction and memoirs to investigate how it feels to face a short future, while having a past crammed with experience and memory. Our sense of time alters, accelerating yet also expanding. I know that the further I get from my childhood the more I feel I’ve led many different lives, and I’m not alone in this.

In her search for the manifold realities of ageing Segal draws on a mass of authors and commentators. A central thread is the work of Simone de Beauvoir, whose early writing, notably The Second Sex, was a startling inspiration to many of us in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, and whose book on old age far fewer have read – until now. Beauvoir was a towering figure but no unblemished heroine; this made her insights all the more valuable in our own struggles to reconcile the theory and practice of female independence.

Doris Lessing is another fruitful source for Segal as she looks at how women have responded to all that is entailed by ageing, not least the loss of youthful beauty, the waning or stifling of desire. While in the broader picture suggested by her researches many women see their romantic and erotic lives as over, there are others who persist in falling in love, in finding and being objects of desire. She believes, and I agree, that life beyond middle age can still be intense and discover its own quickening in many kinds of relationships and experiences, in art and nature, in work, politics and friendship (it is wonderful to have long, long friendships and still be able to make new ones). These, and a strengthened sense of self, count among the pleasures of ageing.

Out of Time makes no generalisations and it continually asks the question of what it means to age well: denial or acceptance, defiant or serene. Ageing is individual and for each generation has specific characteristics, and the book sets out to embrace this wide diversity. It’s also very personal and honest, at times exuberantly so – not a quiet, gentle reckoning, which makes it all the more welcome.

Shortly after I finished reading it I saw Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska. What begins as the stock situation of a confused, elderly man dividing his family over whether or not they should put him in a home, develops into a fierce and funny road movie. The man (Bruce Dern) and his son drive through a monochrome Midwest whose landscapes are lingeringly shot as a kind of timeless dereliction, something already there before recession. In fact the whole film has a quality of being out of time, not just because the silky black and white evokes another era and mobile phones seldom intervene, but because old characters populate its spaces, it looks like a film from their time and it’s their narrative that prevails, displacing the young to the margins as the life inside their parents erupts with ancient histories and renewed emotions. Their past is not over and settling which version is true incurs plenty of foulmouthed recall and knockabout argument. It’s a brilliant discarding of Hollywood myth, be it western or musical. In this Nebraska nothing is cosy. And the old are well and truly alive.

In Chile and in Britain

November 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

In Chile later this month presidential and congressional elections will take place, carrying with them hopes for deeper changes than the country has seen since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s long and deadly rule. Great hopes and savage memories. Chile is not yet free of Pinochet, whose grip persists in many aspects of the country’s governance and economy. The constitution he wrote after the coup of 11 September 1973 is still in force. It hampers electoral democracy and gives powers of veto over reforms to men who were prominent figures in the Pinochet dictatorship.

The Socialist Party candidate Michelle Bachelet served as president from 2006 to 2010 and looks likely to win again. This time she is at the head of a broad-left coalition that includes environmentalists, trade union activists, and leaders of the student movement that has been at the forefront of protest during the term of the present right-wing government. One hope is that victory by a large majority will make it possible to change the constitution.

After Pinochet’s brutal coup, Chile under military dictatorship was the testing ground for the free-market theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, ideas that six years later were to be adopted by Margaret Thatcher. Chile has had 40 years of privatisation. Public spending on education has shrunk while the private sector has grown. The student leaders who are now candidates for Congress  are pursuing the aims that have brought many students onto the streets: higher standards of education that meet the needs of society, and not those of the market; free public education whose institutions should be financed directly from the state. An OECD report published in October of this year showed that Chile ranks first across the OECD and G20 member countries for private expenditure on tertiary education. Interestingly, the UK ranks second.

In Britain, the Tory agenda to privatise everything proceeds at the maximum speed, sometimes with fanfare: Royal Mail, and often by stealth: the NHS and higher education (for a detailed picture of what is happening to the latter, see Stefan Collini’s recent article in the London Review of Books). Has there been protest? There has, but it seldom makes big news, and is often neutralised by spurious offers of consultation. In Britain trade unions were weakened by the assaults of the Thatcher years while the short-lived payoffs of early privatisations and banking deregulation fostered the consumer identities the market would have us all adopt. Thirty-four years on, Thatcherism (and Blairism etc) has managed to stifle any active awareness of what has been lost in the wider sense: our right as a society to the things that should not exist for profit – healthcare, housing, education, to name the basics.

Or so it has seemed. The blaming of the ‘baby boomers’ – my generation – for having too much, for robbing the young of affordable homes and hope for the future, has been a handy Tory diversion that obscures the reality of how that impoverishment came about. We children of the post-war welfare state grew up in a world that was not designed for profit to be made out of everything in sight, a world that recognised the benefits of publicly financed education. It is the free-market economy and the banking catastrophe that have wrought the changes the young have every right to complain of now.

Maybe they are beginning to work out who the real culprits are. The current debate about energy costs is one sign; it has not only exposed the maintenance of a cartel to push prices ever higher for the sake of increasing already huge profits, it has also raised the question of the public good. There is an incipient public appetite for some form of de-privatisation. The same might apply to the running of our railway network, so publicly unloved for its unreliable, overcrowded trains and chaotic overpricing of tickets. We already have the example of East Coast Mainline, which was brought back into public control in 2009, after the disastrous failings of National Express as owners. It has proved more financially viable than any of the other rail companies, while making improvements valued by its passengers, yet the government has just launched a tender for its re-privatisation, for reasons that are ideological and nothing but. The Green MP Caroline Lucas has put forward a Private Members Bill that would renationalise the whole rail network. This is a perfectly feasible proposition. And the public, in other words the electorate, would welcome it.

The Greens, understanding that you can’t be green without challenging capitalism and its imperatives of growth, obsolescence and waste, have turned redder in the last few years. Have the Labour Party noticed? Surely they can see that this might be a good moment to be brave and decisive?  To ditch Blairism and reclaim a place on the left? The Labour Party leadership needs to wake up from the free-market nightmare and give its support to the country. We have an election due in 18 months; there is still time to rally a genuine opposition.

Chile is a very different country from ours, but it can offer us lessons in courage and political aspiration. Pablo Larraín’s film No (a work of fiction) showed how tough and sometimes frightening it had been for the ‘No’ campaigners in the 1988 referendum on whether Pinochet should remain as head of government. They won with 55% of the vote. There are rumours that Larraín is giving a helping hand in next month’s election to 26-year-old Giorgio Jackson, a former student leader who has the coalition’s backing but is standing as an independent candidate for Central Santiago. Because he is unaffiliated to a political party he gets only 4 seconds of TV airtime. On his website he asks his supporters to send in pictures of themselves proclaiming that they’ll vote for him – on placards, banners, sheets of paper. Each photo gets its 4 seconds. Very simple. His slogan is ‘Now Is the Time’. He is tipped to win.

October 17, 1961 Paris Massacre

October 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today is the anniversary of the 1961 Paris massacre of Algerian protesters, one of the murkiest episodes in 20th-century French history, and yet to be fully clarified.

This was in the final year of the Algerian war of independence. A curfew had been imposed on Algerian immigrants in the Paris region and peaceful demonstrations were called in protest for the evening of October 17. Police carried out ferocious attacks at various rallying points, beating and shooting demonstrators and throwing the wounded and dead into the Seine. The whole operation was covered up and given barely a mention in press coverage the following day.

It took years for the facts to become public knowledge. Didier Daeninckx made it the subject of his novel Meurtres pour mémoire (Murder in Memoriam, 1984) and also exposed Maurice Papon, Prefect of Paris at the time, as the zealous Nazi collaborator who had played a significant role in the deportation of Jews, including many children, during the Occupation. An account of the events by historian Jean Luc Enaudi, La Bataille de Paris, was published in 1991. More light was shed in 1997 when Papon was arrested and stood trial for war crimes.

The numbers of the dead have never been fully established. At least 140 were killed, but estimates are as high as 300. There was no official acknowledgement of the massacre until last year, when, on the 51st anniversary, president François Hollande spoke publicly and paid homage to the memory of its victims.

On 17 October last year France 24 interviewed Jean Luc Enaudi. You can read this in English on the France 24 website:

http://www.france24.com/en/20121017-paris-massacre-algeria-october-17-1961-51-years-anniversary-historian-einaudi

If you read French you can find an earlier, more historically detailed interview with him at:

http://17octobre1961.free.fr/pages/dossiers/Einaudi.htm

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